A decade before the events of 9/11 made him go a bit bananas, Frank Miller released a series of neo-noir comic books under the collective title of Sin City. The stories were all pulp crime fiction full of overwrought dialogue, set in a monochrome world with only the occasional splash of colour – red lips, green eyes, yellow bastards; a world where women are “broads”, all power structures are openly corrupt, everyone smokes, and the men are just as much horrible monsters as they are chivalrous heroes.
In 2005, Robert Rodriguez obsessively adapted this material (often panel-by-panel) into a two-hour film with the same trademark stylistics, tone and themes. It took a handful of what were arguably the strongest stories, sliced them up, and reassembled them as a non-linear sequence of digitally rendered vignettes being propelled along by an impeccable cast. The whole thing beautifully contemporised the antiquated storytelling and ultimately turned out better than anyone could have imagined.
The landscape of cinema has changed drastically since. Comic book adaptations are currently of a previously-unimaginable level of quality and prominence. Frank Miller’s boundary-pushing imagery has been emulated to death in the intervening years. And there’s a distinct question mark looming over whether what worked so wonderfully then can still be as effective now, such is the passage of time.
The short answer: no, it can’t. The long answer is below.
A Dame to Kill For adopts the same basic narrative structure in that it takes four individual stories (which collectively occur before, during and after those featured in the first film) and stiches them together outside of linear time. Only two of them are adapted from the original source material: “Just Another Saturday Night”, a one-shot standalone story featuring series-favourite Marv; and “A Dame to Kill For”, which was one of the longer, more substantial six-issue arcs. The other two were written by Miller specifically for the film. The first, “The Long Bad Night”, sees Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an incredibly fortunate gambler, Johnny, who gets in way over his head during a backroom poker game with Powers Boothe’s wonderfully malevolent Senator Roark. The other, “Nancy’s Last Dance”, is a continuation of the “That Yellow Bastard” story featured in the original, and follows Nancy Callahan down a path of alcohol, self-harm and shooting practice as she struggles to come to terms with Detective John Hartigan’s suicide and her inability to muster enough courage to avenge him.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these stories not being told chronologically, but they don’t mesh together as well as those in the original, and there’s a very noticeable shifting of gears as the film veers from one into the other. It also doesn’t help that two of them really aren’t that good, either on their own terms or as part of the broader narrative.
Marv’s solo outing is fun on a very superficial level, but as the character features prominently in the other stories its inclusion isn’t functionally or structurally important, and as such feels slightly redundant. Marv himself is also less interesting than he was. That isn’t to say Mickey Rourke is no longer a perfect fit for the role (he is), or that he attacks the material with any less fervour (he doesn’t), but the unfortunate reality is that Marv’s story was already told exceptionally well in the first film and there’s very little he can do here which we haven’t seen him do before. Yet he shows up far more frequently than anyone else, and is clearly the focal character for the audience even though he isn’t the focal point of the narrative. In most cases he’s simply relegated to muscle. Of course all the best fight scenes can be attributed to him, but that’s all he is here – a walking fight scene, with none of the depth or complexity he had before.
Even worse is the story focused on Nancy. Jessica Alba couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag in the first film either, but it wasn’t too much of a problem because she looked great on stage and the script never asked her to do anything which fell outside of her range. However, the sequel deals her character a hand which Alba is unable to play, and watching her stagger around being various degrees of drunk or, even worse, attempting to look tough and dangerous, is genuinely more difficult to process and accept than all of the sex and violence combined. It wouldn’t be too much of a problem if the actual story surrounding the performance was worth telling, but “Nancy’s Last Dance” is the least competent of the quartet by a significant margin.
What’s worse is that A Dame to Kill For is bookended by these two weakest yarns, so the bar of quality is set low right from the start and is ultimately pulled down to its lowest just in time for the conclusion. And, needless to say, that conclusion is bizarrely anticlimactic and steeped in sulky melodrama.
Luckily the middle chapters are both rather good, and succeed in elevating what would otherwise be a rather bad film into one that’s merely disappointing. Gordon-Levitt nestles neatly into the cast as if he has always been there, and his story is an intriguing aside, one which has all the hallmarks of effective short fiction while also aiding in the development of the primary villain. Powers Boothe is on his very best form here, and his smug, cigar-chomping senator becomes a towering presence when he’s crammed onto a smaller canvas. That’s another thing I like about this story – it focuses more on character and less on bombast, so even though it has a fair amount of violence it still comes across as a refreshing change of pace.
Of course, though, the most developed arc is “A Dame to Kill For”, which is understandable as it contains all the necessary requirements for both character drama and big-screen visual spectacle. It is also a prequel story for the character of Dwight McCarthy, though this time played by Josh Brolin rather than Clive Owen.
(Note: I’m not sure exactly how confusing this switch will be for people who are unfamiliar with the source material, as the film doesn’t explain the continuity all that well. Basically, there’s a plot point in the original comics wherein Dwight literally gets a new face, and it occurs after this story but before the one depicted in the first film. So Josh Brolin can be considered the “original” Dwight McCarthy, whereas Clive Owen was the same character but with a different face).
The story concerns Dwight trying to put his troubled past behind him by earning an ostensibly honest living as a private eye. That is until he is reunited with his former lover, Ava Lord, the titular “dame” played magnificently by Eva Green, and dragged into another violent and traumatic chapter of his life.
This isn’t the first time that Eva Green has hauled an average film up to her own spectacular level; captivating an entire audience the whole time she’s onscreen and making that same audience lament her absence whenever she’s not. Sin City has always mined actors for any archetypes they contain, never really being about what they say or do but instead what they could be if our imaginations were allowed to run free. Eva Green is essentially that personified – she’s the very definition of a femme fatale, almost an elaborate metaphor for female attractiveness, and she plays Ava with such relish and cunning that everyone around her just feels flat and lifeless by comparison. I’m still not sure whether she’s a great technical actress or she just has an overabundance of charisma, but what I do know is she will almost undoubtedly become the feminine ideal for a whole generation of teenage boys.
A large part of this is probably because she’s not afraid to reveal an awful lot of herself, and indeed in this film she spends the majority of her scenes totally nude in a number of compromising poses. Miller and Rodriguez have come under fire in the past for their characterization of women, but the thing I like about Sin City is that it places power in the hands of its female characters. That isn’t necessarily physical, political or economic power, but the ability to make men do what they want by simple virtue of being beautiful and awful at the same time. The male “heroes” in this series are almost exclusively losers by any real-world metric. They spend most of their time in bars, getting drunk and leering at strippers. Occasionally they do something violent and cool, but they do it because that’s all they know and all they’re good at. In comparison the women are goddesses, able to manipulate men to their own ends because the men are all naïve dummies who can’t see their own stupidity because their vision is clouded by lust. Admittedly that’s a one-note presentation of gender, but I don’t think it’s necessarily reductive.
Unfortunately though, the format means that Eva Green is only around for the middle portion of the film, and once she’s gone the whole thing has no choice but to huff and puff before eventually collapsing over the finish line. This uneven quality and disjointed pace renders much of A Dame to Kill For surprisingly uninteresting, and the fact we’ve essentially seen it all before means that the stylistic visuals – which are again superb, and this time in 3D – aren’t able to pick up the slack when the storytelling starts to buckle.
This isn’t a bad film by any means, but it’s definitely a disappointing one. Sin City was one of those great ideas that works really well once but shouldn’t be repeated, and A Dame to Kill For is proof of that. If you’re a die-hard fan of Miller’s universe there’s a fair amount to enjoy here, but not enough to justify a true recommendation – unless of course you’re into Eva Green.
In any case, the long and short of it is that it took almost a decade to get here, and it wasn’t worth the wait. There are still just enough stories in the established universe to do another one of these, but here’s to hoping that they don’t bother.
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