2005's "Sin City" is 99.5% style, .5% substance, but it is easy to understand
why it has its passionate fans. Myself included. Directors Robert Rodriguez
(2013's "Machete Kills") and Frank Miller (2008's "The Spirit"), adapting from
Miller's graphic novel, brought life to a foreboding place never before glimpsed
on film, the green-screen surroundings of its live-action actors actualized with
stark black-and-white animation and bursts of dazzling color. With the kind of
dialogue that could only be heard in the land of film noir and its cast members
playing things deadly straight in the most ridiculous of circumstances (think
Lt. Frank Drebin, Police Squad), the picture was a hard-boiled pulp comic in
feature form. If there is even half a percent of substance in belated second
installment "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," it must be well-hidden. This distaff
continuation—a combined sequel and prequel—is spotty and slipshod, an unsteady,
mostly vacuous excursion that not only shines a light on how much better "Sin
City" did it, but virtually erases from memory with each passing scene.
Like the first film, the various plot strands are told as extended, sporadically
interwoven vignettes. In one, Marv (Mickey Rourke) wakes up injured on a curvy
cliffside road outside
rotten metropolis Basin City and tries to piece together
the events that led him to his present situation. Meanwhile, gambling man Johnny
(Joseph Gordon-Levitt) arrives in town with something to prove, challenging the
powerful Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) at a game of
poker that could cost him his life. At the seedy club that Roark rules with his
almighty fist, hardened stripper Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) fantasizes about
seeking her revenge on the senator as payback for the rotten life she's been
forced to lead. Guided by hallucinations of dead lover/protector John Hartigan
(Bruce Willis), Nancy teams with Marv to end Roark's reign once and for all.
And, in a tale set before "Sin City," Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) is
manipulated by sultry femme fatale Ava Lord (Eva Green) into doing away with
billionaire husband Damien (Marton Csokas) and bodyguard Manute (Dennis Haysbert),
only to discover too late her nefarious true intentions.
"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" features a star-filled company eclipsing mediocre
material. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (2013's "Don Jon"), as the hurt and neglected
Johnny, and Jessica Alba (2011's "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World"), as the
bitter, world-weary Nancy, come closest to finding detectable pathos in their
roles. Both have full arcs, with Alba scarcely before embodying someone with
such raw ferocity. The young lady she was in the predecessor is
gone, beaten down by an unfair, exploitative existence she no longer can stand.
surprisingly, she still manages to look good even after taking a shard of
glass to her own face. Also making an impression as she is reliably apt to do,
Eva Green (2014's "300: Rise of an Empire") deviously scorches up her segment
with emerald eyes and ruby lips tearing through the largely chiaroscuro frames.
Her part is that of a purely archetypal villainess, but Green always tackles
these strong, savage ladies with her own inspired spin. Seeing his Senator
Roark's screen time increased, Powers Boothe (2010's "MacGruber") is easy to
despise, and easier to be captivated by.
As for the rest of the ensemble, the actors are a collection of new faces to the
series and returnees who have far less to do. Mickey Rourke (2011's "Immortals")
cuts an always imposing figure as valiant, deadly big lug Marv, but he is a more
sidelined figure here, at the service of other characters' stories rather than
the driving force of his own. Taking over for an absent Clive Owen, Josh Brolin
(2013's "Oldboy") is terribly miscast as Dwight. He is fine in
the part, but doesn't at all capture the Dwight which Owen so dynamically
originated. As butt-kicking lover Gail, Rosario Dawson (2013's "Trance") is
mostly a peripheral player here, while Bruce Willis (2013's "A Good Day to Die
Hard") appears in a glorified cameo as John Hartigan looking incredibly bored.
Other excellent talent, from Christopher Meloni (2013's "Man of Steel") and
Jeremy Piven (2011's "I Melt with You") as police investigators Mort and Bob, to
Ray Liotta (2013's "The Place Beyond the Pines") and Juno Temple (2014's
"Maleficent") as dangerous cheating husband Joey and his streetwalking
girlfriend Sally, to Jamie Chung (2012's "Premium Rush") and Jaime King (2012's
"Mother's Day") as Miho and twins Goldie/Wendie, to a natural-as-can-be Lady
Gaga as compassionate waitress Bertha, are woefully underutilized.
In the festooned world which Basin City resides, people can get thrown out
speeding cars, tossed from upstairs windows, have their eyes ripped out, and get
shot full of lead and still live to see another day—that is, if the sun ever
came up. This is all in the name of a purposefully
exaggerated concept that
brings its illustrated origins to filmic realization. That doesn't mean,
however, that "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" is successful. Any shot could
arguably be framed and hung on a wall, but put all together there is a lack of a
beating heart to carry the viewer through the movie's heightened histrionics.
With stale criss-crossing narratives that prove anemic no matter if they are
separated or together, the picture covers familiar territory in inferior ways.
Lumbering to an ending that feels as if it is missing a closing beat, the
proceedings finally collapse in a gust of so-whatness. The nine-year wait was
far from worth it. Instead of fanning the franchise flames, “Sin City: A Dame to
Kill For” tosses a wet blanket on the fun, stumbling with a plodding follow-up
that’s missing the insanity and most of the grim highlights that made the
original so memorable. It’s as though Rodriguez and Miller forgot how to make a
“Sin City” movie.