I’m all for cinematic surprises, but sometimes, it’s a real pleasure going into a movie knowing exactly what you’ll end up getting. Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For stirred within me the same sense of excitement, awe, and even revulsion I felt nine years ago watching the original Sin City, a spectacular achievement that merged the narrative sensibilities of a crime thriller and film noir with the visual sensibilities of a comic book. This follow-up keeps to that atmospheric tradition in tremendous fashion. Some, I’m sure, would see this as a sign that directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, the same duo that brought its predecessor to the big screen, were unable to come up with an original idea – or, at the very least, something slightly less routine. I, for one, applaud them for sticking to what works.
The difference between the two films, of course, is that this latest chapter has been released in 3D. Perhaps there is some validity to the criticism that 3D should not have been applied to this particular story, since the intention was to capture the look of comic book panels, which belong to an innately 2D medium. However, given a digital presentation that allows for brighter images and more immersive visuals (though not as immersive, I’m compelled to admit, as it would be in IMAX 3D, a process I’ve yet to find fault with), I cannot sit here and say that I wasn’t continually looking at the screen in helpless fascination. As was the case in 2005, I happily soaked in the highly stylized visuals – yes, even during sequences of unremitting, cringe-inducing violence, some of which are so over the top that they might have been better suited in a torture porn extravaganza.
Adapted in part from Miller’s own graphic novels, A Dame to Kill For, like its predecessor, interweaves several storylines and features an assortment of characters played by an ensemble cast. Also like its predecessor, the film isn’t so much about its storylines as it is about its sense of style. The actors once again perform almost entirely in front of green screens. Virtually every set and location is once again created with a computer. The cinematography is once again in near-total black and white, with specific characters and objects punctuated with vibrant color. The visuals are once again constructed to be stark and self-contained, like panels in the funnies section of a newspaper. And the dialogue and voiceover narrations are once again written in the fatalistic, hardboiled language of film noir. In the best possible sense, there isn’t a shot anchored to reality nor a character developed plausibly.
Several roles are reprised, most notably the hulking and literally square-jawed Marv (Mickey Rourke) and exotic dancer Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba). The former is obviously a player in a prequel subplot, since the previous film clearly showed him in prison frying to death in an electric chair. The latter, however, stars in a sequel subplot; now a half-crazed alcoholic, she seeks revenge against the corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), not only because his son, the loathsome Yellow Bastard, kidnapped and sexually abused her as a girl, but also because his actions led to the death of her wrongfully-accused savior, police detective John Hartigan. It’s debatable whether her periodic visions of Hartigan (Bruce Willis) are mere hallucinations or actual ghostly visitations – although a shot late in this storyline, which I obviously won’t tell you about, give me reason to believe that they’re the latter.
The film’s best subplot sees Josh Brolin replacing Clive Owen as private investigator Dwight McCarthy, developed as a cross between a cynical pulp magazine detective and an exploitation antihero, his initial desperate need to repress his feelings and “not let the demon out” eventually giving way to a vengeful rage. He’s all but obsessed with the woman who spurned him, Ava (Eva Green), a cold, manipulative femme fatale in the strongest possible sense. You really have to marvel at the way she so effortlessly toys with men, using exactly the right words, summoning up exactly the right emotions, always showing off the seductive deep green of her eyes. Her conniving applies not only to Dwight, but also to a police detective named Mort (Christopher Meloni), whose alarming fixation on her gives his partner, Bob (Jeremy Piven), reason to be concerned.
There’s also an entertaining subplot involving a young, cocky street gambler named Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who, for reasons I have no intention of revealing, has a personal score to settle with Senator Roark. His journey through seedy bars and dimly-lit gambling halls will involve encounters with a sweet-faced and entirely colorized waitress named Marcie (Julia Garner), a back-alley, heroin-addicted doctor (Christopher Lloyd), and a tough-talking diner waitress (Lady Gaga), who, in one small but crucial way, proves very helpful. Some may view these characters only as broadly-drawn caricatures, not developed so much as sculpted from genre clichés. But you see, that’s the way character are in movies like Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. They reflect not authentic human beings, but nostalgic exaggerations of them, and they inhabit a world that exists only in the imagination.