The corrupt soul of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For isn’t all that different from that of Sin City, its predecessor and one of the best films of 2005. Yet there is a key distinction that makes this sequel inferior. The movie’s depravity doesn’t bleed from the screen; it’s splashed onto it.
I describe it that way because bleeding and splashing are part of the Sin City aesthetic. Adaptations of the graphic novels by Frank Miller, who once again gets co-director credit along with Robert Rodriguez, both films occasionally replicate in detail one of the frames of Miller’s books: sharply delineated black-and-white line drawings, with occasional bursts of bright red. These films drip with noir-inflected visual ingenuity. A Dame to Kill For adds the element of 3-D, which normally does nothing for me but admittedly brings a pop-art flair to the opening credits sequence here.
Despite this aggressive, exciting stylization, not to mention the considerable exploitation factor, there was still something mournful about Sin City. You sensed it, mostly, in the weariness of that movie’s two central figures: burly ex-con Marv (Mickey Rourke) and stubborn cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis). Both return, but as ghosts of their former selves. For Willis’ Hartigan, this is literal: having died in Sin City, he appears here as a protective spirit hovering over exotic dancer Nancy (Jessica Alba), for whom he gave his life. Thematically, it works – there’s the sense, true to film noir, that fatalism reaches beyond the grave. But structurally it’s a bit clumsy, as if the sadness has been stapled on.
More troubling is the handling of Marv, who was the heart and soul of the first film. Rourke played him as a wrecked piece of meat (perhaps warming up for The Wrestler) who nonetheless could hold his own against just about anyone. In A Dame to Kill For, he’s part killing machine and part clown, at one point even sporting the jaunty chauffer’s hat of a bodyguard he’s just pummeled. I understand the Marv sequences are prequel scenes, taking place before the Marv events of Sin City, but I don’t see the advantage in show us a “younger, lighter” Marv. The character may have a dryly comic edge, but in A Dame to Kill For he’s out of step with the hardened pessimism that has otherwise defined the series.
The movie’s depravity doesn’t bleed from the screen; it’s splashed onto it.
As for what’s new in A Dame to Kill For, half of it works and half of it doesn’t. The majority of the narrative involves a private detective played by Josh Brolin who gets roped into a diabolical scheme by his ex (Eva Green). The story line doesn’t do much except play the femme fatale notion to squeamish extremes. Far better (and more fatalistic) is the subplot with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a cardsharp who angles his way into a high-stakes game against Powers Boothe’s corrupt senator. “They’ll eat you alive,” he’s warned. “I’m a pretty tough chew,” he answers. Hey, it’s not Brick, but it works.
As does the overall visual design, even if it no longer carries the burst of newness. I especially liked Rodriguez and Miller’s use of silhouette this time around, in which the characters literally become two-dimensional noir archetypes. There’s an astonishing sequence in which Brolin takes a punch and his image dissolves into a white silhouette, which then blends in with the gleam of streetlights reflecting off the finish of a speeding car. Coming full circle, the car’s door opens and Brolin is thrown out.
Ultimately, though, the noir fatalism of A Dame to Kill For seems secondary to such imagery, whereas in Sin City the imagery served the ideas. If the earlier movie was more depraved – it involved both cannibalism and child murder, after all – that’s because it was processing the awfulness of this world from the inside out. A Dame to Kill For doesn’t get its hands quite as dirty. It’s less icky, and lesser art.