Mickey Rourke, Josh Brolin, Evan Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jessica Alba
Mull this over: The Dark Knight is the best superhero movie ever made. But Sin City is the best comic book movie ever made. It popped off the page and onto the screen. It rippled with highly stylized violence and cartoon conceits. Shots were framed using the book’s pages as storyboard inspiration. It was in many respects literally a comic book movie. And it was a hit. It was fresh and exciting with violence that really sold the drama of the world. I liked it a lot.
But something’s been lost in the nine years between Sin City and its sequel A Dame to Kill For. The new film didn’t hit like the old one. The action was flat; it didn’t punch as hard. The stories weren’t reverent. The characters weren’t engaging. It just wasn’t very good.
If you haven’t seen it, Sin City is an adaptation of Frank Miller’s series of graphic novels of the same name. They tell the sordid tales of the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth in fictional Sin City: bad guys, brawlers, hit men, prostitutes, crooked cops and killers. It’s a city of anti-heroes, washed in blood and crime, drawn in stark black and white with flashes of color to draw out dramatic elements. The first film was notably shot to mirror the look and feel of the comic book page. Black and white with flourishes of red, blue, and yellow to draw attention to features like a woman’s blonde hair, the paint of a classic car, or the congealed splatter of blood. It was also almost entirely shot before a green screen, which played to its benefit, lending a flat comic book feel and allowing the setting to take on a life of its own.
And it’s worth it to delve into the behind-the-scenes. If nothing else, Robert Rodriguez is wildly inventive when it comes to budget filming, editing, and special effects. The 15-Minute Film School bits that accompany his DVD’s as special features are educational and entertaining.
First off, the timing for A Dame to Kill For is an issue. Too many years have elapsed and I have to admit, my appetite for more stories has waned. I can remember much fervor for a sequel following the release of Sin City. And a more timely release might have capitalized on that taste for more. It seemed that the filmmakers had a game plan at the time too, a title and rough outline were teased. I mean, the comic books are already written and the source material lends itself to a peace meal shooting/editing schedule. A second film would have made a lot of sense at the time. But nothing happened until now. I just don’t think the audience cared enough to revisit something that wasn’t fresh any longer.
And overall, it didn’t justify its long hiatus. I was left unsatisfied and the recasting of certain characters left a uneasy pall over the thing. Mainly, the interweaving stories were weak and characters were not likable enough to root for. Marv, for starters, became the breakout character the first time around. His violent, hellbent trek to avenge the death of a prostitute who showed him a good time was exciting and tongue-in-cheek. Who is this behemoth, we asked, who kills and kills just because someone was nice to him? People just don’t do that. It was a compelling look into his psyche where the audience roots for him at arm’s length. We know we shouldn’t get too close to Marv because he’s a dangerous loose cannon, but we like him. And that’s what made it fun.
In A Dame to Kill For, Marv doesn’t have his own maniac adventure. He doesn’t have much to do at all, actually. He rides shotgun and takes orders from other people. It felt wrong and wasn’t paid off for him as a character. I kept waiting for him to take charge and start calling the shots, or snap and do something that gets him into trouble, kill someone he shouldn’t have or something. Anything to inject a little tension into the proceedings would have been nice. But none of that came. Instead, he sat around waiting for someone to recruit him, then laid down his arms for no reason at the moment of truth. No conclusion for Marv.
And that kind of plot failure bothered me because it showed up a lot. What the first Sin City did well was match its violent tone with high stakes. Shock value is fine but it needs to carry weight and move the story along. Eva Green is nude for the majority of her screen time. That’s not alluring; there’s no teasing of her sexuality when it’s all laid bare immediately. There’s no mystery, no tension. Likewise, when multiple people are shot/hit in the groin it loses its sting after a while. That’s a grave, life-altering wound and it should be treated as such. The first Sin City built an entire story around such a deformity. A Dame to Kill For, in contrast, blithely uses the tactic to superficially up the ante and fabricate a sense of recklessness.
Tension goes like this: Something important is threatened and the protagonist goes to whatever lengths he or she has to to resolve the problem. Detective Hardigan had to save a little girl, but fought his own shortcomings related to his age and history. Dwight had to pull through and make up for his carelessness or else a lot of people would die. And Marv was acting out in blatant disregard for the law and human decency because he was framed for a murder he didn’t commit. How the main character reacts to and tries to correct what’s off kilter in his life is what makes a story compelling.
A Dame to Kill For didn’t really seem to understand the power of raising the stakes. It tried to go 100 miles per hour at all times, even when the action slowed down. What that meant was that I had no reading on the ebb and flow of the story because there was none. Every setback seemed to be glossed over and ignored where it should have been explored and dealt with. Personality quirks weren’t exploited and laid bare. People acted without impetus and their motivations weren’t rewarded. There was no crescendo and no satisfying payoff because it felt like a climax the whole time. That kind of pace makes the audience numb to your movie very quickly.
Take Johnny’s story for example. He’s a cocky gambler who never loses. He can look at a slot machine and know if it’s a winner, and he’s got a bone to pick with the most powerful man in the state, Senator Rourke. Rourke attempts to cut him down to size by breaking his fingers and shooting him in the leg after losing a game of poker, but Johnny’s right back up on his feet. He’s not deterred or even mildly slowed down. He shows up at the next night’s card game to win just like he was going to anyway. Why was his livelihood so dramatically taken away if he’s not going to be inhibited by it? He doesn’t overcome his obstacle like a character should, he already has the ability to come out on top, pulling a deus ex machina with his other hand. That irked me too, the ambidextrous bit. No foreshadowing, no clues. It’s insulting, to expect me to be impressed by slight of hand like that without reason.
And try as I might, the change in personnel was distracting. Brittany Murphy was missed; Michael Clarke Duncan was missed. But most importantly, Clive Owen was missed. His was my favorite story, the original Dwight caper: The Big Fat Kill. And while it involves surgery and a new face, (justifying a replacement actor) Josh Brolin’s character was incompetent, stupid, and unappealing. His performance was lackluster as well. And it didn’t even follow the logic of his arc. Once the bandages are taken off, he’s supposed to be Clive Owen, not Josh Brolin with long hair. I mean, come on! What’s Clive Owen so busy doing that he can’t come work for a day and finish the scene like he should’ve? Poor decision on the director’s part. It was confusing, too, and off-putting in an uncanny valley sort of way. Big missed opportunity, there.
I’d give it a five out of ten. It’s more of the lovely art direction, if that’s your thing. But the look has been imitated and it’s not groundbreaking anymore. In addition, the field of comic book movies has changed dramatically in the last decade and this film just doesn’t have the edge to really elevate itself above the fray.
I’d liken it to the 300 sequel, another adaptation of a Frank Miller story. At the end of the day it’s flat and forgettable. An action movie without the punch or fun of its predecessor. Plus Eva Green’s in both.
Alright, #realtalk. This is hearsay, but I’m enough of a Robert Rodriguez fan (and have given him enough of my money) to justify my opinion:
He makes junk movies. He’s talented and amazingly creative, and big-name actors seem to really enjoy working with him. But here’s the rub: He hit it big with the original Sin City but didn’t know how to handle it going forward. In his eyes, A Dame to Kill For is any one of his other disposable sequels, not the follow-up to an important, groundbreaking, mainstream blockbuster. He treated A Dame to Kill For with the same blase attitude he approaches all of his movies with: “I’m having fun, whatever.”
And that’s fine for lighthearted schlock like Machete Kills, Planet Terror, or Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. Feel free, Mr. Rodriguez, to experiment and teach yourself things about the art and science of film making because nobody is looking at those movies too closely. But the sequel to a blockbuster is expected to be a tent-pole affair itself, and I don’t think you had the mindset this time around to really do it right.