Film Review – Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
It’s supposed to be a hard punch. The film takes a swing at you and it hurts. You pick your jaw up and the adrenaline running through you is fun so you ask for some more. Instead, the swing comes limp, like John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) trying to raise his shot arm when he faced down Roark Jr. (Nick Stahl), who’s now become that Yellow Bastard, in the first Sin City movie. There’s a preceding bravado that puffs its chest while having been shot three times and says, this is dangerous. Only, it’s not. It looks like it has all the ingredients, a love of film-noir, a hard-boiled sensibility, and a penchant for crossing the line. But that’s just its facade.
In 2005 Robert Rodriguez teamed up with comic book artist and writer Frank Miller to bring his comic book series to the big screen, and now nine years later the sequel is here. Pretty much what was started there, continues here. The first film was noted for taking the adaptation quite literally, it not only used the comics themselves as the storyboard it took the exact look of the comic, its eccentric atmosphere and exaggerated genre imagery. In doing so, it made a play at authenticity. The filmmakers were making a statement that this was the pure adaptation that fans had been complaining about wanting. Citing anger over the changes made to adaptations of other comic books, mostly superheroes. This exists in A Dame to Kill For as well. And with it comes the same problems the first movie had, only this time around, like Miller’s exaggerated sense of violent imagery in his art, the problems are also exaggerated.
With a literal adaptation like what Rodriguez and Miller are doing, where panel to panel interpretation is brought from a comic book page to a moving image on a screen, there’s a difference between the space that time takes up than with the pacing of how that space is conveyed. As prominent comic book writer Alan Moore wrote in his guide to writing comics, the unique thing to reading a comic is that the time that passes in story and the time it takes for you to experience that is up to you, the reader. Meaning that you decide how long it takes for you to get through one page of a comic, or a single panel. This changes the story’s pacing depending on the person reading it. A writer will attempt to control how you pace that experience through their story, but ultimately it’s up to you. This then affects not only how you process it, but how information in the story is conveyed to you. The time that paces between one panel in a comic and the next can be a span of seconds to many, many years. This can exist between issues of a comic, which in itself takes the passing of time to reach you. In the movie this time passes by in a staccato edited presentation, where everything moves at the same speed, quick, and neat.
Now, a second time around the movie is amped up more, puffing its chest and beating it harder. It knows what a good sequel takes and thinks it knows how to deliver. The problem is it only knows what it wants to be, not how to be it. So it compensates with hyperbole. What we get is a facsimile of the hard-boiled, grindhouse film noir that Rodriguez and Miller want this to be. From its look, to its players, to the stories, this movie comes off like a parody of a genre film a la Black Dynamite, but sucked all the comedy out and replaced it with a phony malaise. By shooting everything on a green screen in isolated and stationary locations, like a soundstage, or room in someone’s house, the movie automatically loses a tactile connection in its presentation. This was a problem for me with the first one, and was with subsequent movies like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and Frank Miller’s solo directing effort The Spirit. Here there’s a bigger budget so the backgrounds are filled out a little bit more and there’s more of Sin City skyline sprawl to see, but it still doesn’t look right. Looks cheap, like the perfume in Old Town.
Rodriguez and Miller have weaved four stories into one, this time using only two of Miller’s published comics, the titular Dame to Kill For and Just Another Saturday Night. Miller then penned two original stories for the movie that unfortunately feel just as used and weathered as the characters their portraying, and unfortunately like a lot of Miller’s work for a while now. Marv (Mickey Rourke) returns in the opening story, where he wakes up in a car accident on the side of the road and can’t remember how he got there, and then spends the rest of the movie acting like a benevolent protector to Basin City’s downtrodden. This segues into one of the new stories centering on a gambler named Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who decides to take on the mighty Senator Roark (Powers Booth). The movie jumps back and forth in time, giving the viewer no sense of when this has happened or how much time has passed at any given moment. Which then makes the prequel story of Dwight (Josh Brolin) and his tenuous relationship with a femme fatale Ava Lord (Eva Green), seem confusing and out of place with what bookends it. The story of Dame takes up the bulk of the movie, with Green traipsing around nude for most of her part, draped in shadow and lace. It’s a role that simply requires seduction and venom.
Unfortunately that’s where things continue to go bad, in an attempt to produce strong female characters, what we get are females that are only presented as being strong when they’re acting like men, or whores. Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) is reeling from the death of Hartigan, and takes it out by now dancing with a loaded revolver while stripping, imagining that one day she’ll shoot Senator Roark, whom she blames for Hartigan’s suicide. Any other woman that’s presented is either a helpless prostitute, or a killer one, as we see again when characters return to old Town where prostitutes like Gail (Rosario Dawson) and Miho (Jamie Chung) rule as law through physical force. It’s a troubling aspect of female characters in a noir context that when facsimiled like what is being done here, attempts to create strong female noir characters that are instead watershed representations of what they originally stood for. There’s a whole context behind the femme fatale that’s been turned into an adolescent male’s concept of the iconography, the look, the attitude, the sexy yet destructive demeanor, and doesn’t understand the distinction in what made the femme fatales of the movies this one wants to be a play on, the iconic archetypes that they were. The dangers of a literal interpretation are then doubled when the whole thing looks like a stage play with little to no sense of cinematic style. It’s all a little too static and xeroxed, that compounded with story issues, stilted acting, and an absent sense of direction, leaves a good solid gut punching film experience much to be desired.