Film Review - Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
When I first saw Robert Rodriguez's ultra-violent and extremely-stylish film adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City in 2005, I was in two minds.
For the most part the film was an intense, blood-drenched, action-driven, hard-boiled crime thriller with a fun neo-noir style narrative, interesting characters, a relaxed attitude to gore and a striking aesthetic that honored the story's graphic novel origins, mostly utilizing a black and white filter with a minimal use of color to highlight specific objects (e.g. a single character's eyes, a piece of clothing etc).
It's use of green screen was equally impressive, with the production team effectively realizing the dark, dank, depressingly grim crime-ridden cesspool of a digitally created Basin City, making it feel like a real life location while simultaneously emphasizing its unrealistic and outlandish qualities.
With characters shrugging off bullet wounds or exiting apartment buildings by leaping out of 20-story windows to casually land on their feet unharmed at street level, the film's more goofy elements required a certain suspension of disbelief to truly enjoy the mayhem.
The film's over reliance on gore however did eventually get old and a certain story arc regarding a gang war between prostitutes and a crime syndicate with pimping aspirations was particularly unappealing due to it being the most drawn out chapter in the film and its inclusion of unlikable, uninteresting and unmemorable characters.
Overall though the movie rightfully made an impression that earned it a wide-fan base and critical acclaim. With rumors emerging in 2005 that a sequel was already in the works, I eagerly awaited for another helping of dark tales from (Ba)Sin City.
Jump forward 9 years to present day and said sequel has finally been released. 'Sin City: A Dame to Kill for' brings back familiar cast alongside new ones for another round of poetic narration and chaotic action in a city that never seems to experience daylight and in which the majority of citizens appear to be evil, corrupt, amoral or psychopathic individuals, thugs and murderers.
Much like the original Sin City, Rodriguez and Miller's latest collaboration also consists of around four vignettes (two major and two minor yarns) that slightly interconnect with one another, though their synchronicity with the first movie can be a little confusing, as it's neither a sequel or prequel. Instead many of the events that unfold in the sequel interlap with the stories from the original.
The film opens well enough, with the mass-murdering, psychopathic, yet strangely-moralistic and likable franchise mascot, Marv, establishing the stylish and somewhat exaggerated action sequences Sin City is known for as he mercilessly hunts down a group of arrogant and homicidal college students. While the scene is fun, Marv's brutality does feel a little too familiar and predictable, making the sequel already seem old and uninspired from the very beginning.
The bloody action that ensures through this first five minutes also lacks the impact of the original, which incorporated dark romanticism and tragedy into a compelling, yet sinister and foreboding noir-style intro.
'A Dame to Kill For' story-arc
The titular story-line focuses on private detective Dwight McCarthy, portrayed by Josh Brolin, years prior to the the events that occurred in the original film and a face-lift that made him the splitting image of Clive Owen.
After saving a prostitute from the homicidal intentions of a mentally unstable businessman (portrayed by Ray Liotta), Dwight answers a call for help from his former flame. However his altruism is rewarded only with conflict in the form of a seductive and manipulative vixen Ava Lord (played by Eva Green) who also happens to be the "dame to kill for" referred to in the title.
Additional trouble comes from Manute, her nearly indestructible and muscle-bound chaueffer/valet (Dennis Haysburt replaces the late Michael Clarke Duncan); and a pair of detectives, with Jeremy Piven replacing Michael Madsen as 'Bob' and Christopher Meloni portraying the honest but easily manipulated 'Mort'.
Other than collaboration between McCarthy and Marv and a strong initial emphasis that an assault on a guarded premises should involve no deaths (which is very uncharacteristic for a franchise that treats death, murder and gore so lightly), the film plays out more or less as you'd expect and it's almost indistinguishable from the first film. The franchise's trademark action scenes look as good as they did in the original, if not better, but just don't seem that impressive or fresh anymore and fail to do anything we haven't seen.
The fighting can be entertaining and intense at times, with a confrontation between Marv and Manute being a particular standout, but lack any suspense due in part to McCarthy's story being a prequel to the original film, so we already know how it's going to end, as well as the protagonists being entirely unsympathetic.
The episode is told in a similar fashion to the original, through character soliloquies and self-narration and while it's sort of interesting to have McCarthy's relationships with Gail (played by Rosario Dawson) and the girls of 'Old Town' fleshed out further, the narrative really is predictable and lacks any sort of originality.
'The Long Bad Night'
Interwoven through out the movie is the second major narrative, which follows a young and suave card-shark known as Johnny (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose aptitude and luck in gambling basically make him unbeatable in any game.
His arrogance, skill and overly-cocky attitude soon see him buy into a high-stakes backroom poker game where he defeats somebody he shouldn't have - the corrupt and dangerous politician, Senator Roarke. Embarrassed that someone actually had the courage to best him, Roarke turns his attention to entirely ruining Johnny's life.
This vignette makes a nice break from McCarthy's story, as other than a single scene where Johnny defends himself against two assailants and several sequences where he's on the receiving end of Roarke's sadism and brutality,we never see Johnny fight or show any deadly intent at all.
Johnny's tale had potential to give viewers something new by having a character that defeats their enemy using wits, rather than balls-to-wall violence like most of the franchise characters we've met so far, but the film barely does this character justice by hardly giving him enough screen time to properly flesh out his personality and motives.
His ultimate revenge on Roarke is not only unexpected but also not all that interesting and kind of unfulfilling.
Nancy's Last Dance
Both Johnny's episode and an epilogue featuring exotic-dancer Nancy Callahan were both written by Frank Miller specifically for the film and both feature characters who carry a grudge against Senator Roarke.
Set 4-years after her rescue from Roarke's rapist son by honest cop John Hartigan, Nancy is mentally-scarred over those events and Hartigan's ultimate sacrifice to keep her safe. Bruce Willis returns as Hartigan, now a ghost looking over Nancy as her mental stability deteriorates.
Out of all the stories featured in the sequel this was probably the most poignant, as both Nancy and Hartigan are well established sympathetic characters and naturally we want to see them finally give Roarke his comeuppance.
However Nancy's revenge story overall comes across as rushed and simplistic. Her transformation from a mentally-scarred exotic dancer to a physically-scarred embodiment of vengeance isn't very well developed and when it comes down to actually executing her revenge plot it's a little too predictable, formulaic and contrived, while lacking much needed drama and suspense.
It should be emphasized that performances from the entire cast are rock solid, with the original cast returning to great form in portraying these characters after nearly a decade; while new cast members perform brilliantly in bringing the hard-boiled inhabitants of Sin City to life.
It's easy to recognize the passion and enthusiasm from Directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller in recreating this rich, stylish, film-noir atmosphere, with a demonstration of great special effects, excellently written gritty and poetic narration, as well as pacing and surreal story telling that will entertain most fans of the 2005 movie.
However after the innovation and originality from the first film, the sequel ultimately comes out a little flat, despite some stand out moments. The greatest issue holding the film back isn't its overuse of violence or misogynistic portrayal of women as some have suggested (as the male characters generally come across as even worse); it's the fact that the picture feels basically the same for its full 102 minute running time without introducing any thing new in its somewhat average stories and barely differentiating itself from the original film.
The main plot line featuring Dwight McCarthy, for example, may be a cinematic throwback to typical 1940s film-noir, but today it comes across as stale and predictable regardless of the movie's interesting aesthetics. As a result of McCarthy's story being too long, the film doesn't give much time to properly flesh out and develop Johnny's and Nancy's stories either, and though they're largely fun to watch they also feel tacked on.
The characters this time around also pale in comparison to some from the earlier film. So you won't be meeting characters as interesting, wild, outlandish and utterly detestable as the original picture's cannibalistic alter-boy Kevin; the senator's evil, pedophile son who for most of the film has an unsettling yellow-glow against the film's otherwise black and white environments; or Jack Rafferty, whose status as a "hero-cop" clashes with his criminal behavior and violent demeanor.
Overall, if you're looking for another bout of over-the-top violence and gritty storytelling that more-or-less mirrors the same elements from the first film, though with it feeling a little underwhelming this time round, or you're just a fan of Frank Miller's graphic novels, you probably won't want to miss this latest tour down the familiar streets of Basin City.
For fans of the original film who were hoping that the Rodriguez - Miller collaboration had more to offer, such as interesting new characters and an engaging new adventure that doesn't feel like a mere rehash of the original film, you'll likely be disappointed.
Final Verdict: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For offers fans much of the same, barely differentiating itself from the original film's iconic action, visuals and style, but with less interesting characters and story telling.