James Brolin drives angry in the second go at "Sin City." Credit: The Weinstein Company
'Sin City: A Dame to Kill For' Director: Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller Stars: Mickey Rourke, James Brolin Rating: R 2 (out of 5) Globes
The first “Sin City” came out so long ago — nine years! — that it can be hard to tell if it was good or simply original. And it wasn’t that original: It was a fantasy version of the pulps and films noirs of the ’40s and ’50s. More specifically, it was a fantasy version for 15-year-old boys who had aged out of Heavy Metal magazine (and its cartoon boob-heavy film). Sequels are no-brainers: Frank Miller’s comics were an anthology series after all. But returning to the well, as “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” does, and after so long, could highlight the crappiness of the original, fumble the ball or both. Here’s how it did.
Eva Green is one of the stand-outs in the second "Sin City." Credit: The Weinstein Company
The stories aren’t as strong
There are four “yarns” told, of varying lengths and none as gripping as the ones in the first. By far the longest — “A Dame to Kill For,” one of the two that come from the original comics — should have been a swish, for it summons that mighty pulp/noir staple: the femme fatale. (Incredibly, the first “Sin City” had no fatales. It’s like it knew nothing of the genre.) The one here is Ava (Eva Green), a temptress who reignites the passions in an old flame (Josh Brolin) to of course trick him into a dastardly deed.
Green was made for this world; she’s an old school ham who vamps around with fiery eyes. (She would have been great in silent films.) But she never gets the breakout moments like she did in the otherwise useless “300” sequel, and the storytelling is a total shambles. There’s a reason for that:
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays one of the only characters who doesn't talk exclusively in brooding monotone (though he does that too). Credit: The Weinstein Company
It exposes both creators’ limitations
Miller co-directed both films with Robert Rodriguez. Both have issues. Miller, for starters, has aged into a tiresome crank. His already questionable dream project — in which Batman fights Osama Bin Laden, as Superman did with Hitler during WWII — curdled into “Holy Terror!” in which American beefcakes machine gun down Muslims.
He’s also, despite his “Sin City” run, not a pulp storyteller. He’s a man with a lot of crazy ideas, some good, some very bad. He gets tangled up trying to tell a simple story. “A Dame to Kill” features an exhausting number of goings to and from a mansion, plus a subplot about a horny detective (Christopher Meloni) that could have been excised with no one noticing.
Miller’s partner has his own problems. Rodriguez works fast and cheap, which can result in sloppy work. He can sometimes charm his way out of this problem, but his movies — some of which he, admittedly amazingly, makes out of his garage — can look like crap.
This “Sin City” looks only marginally better than the first, meaning it also features drab video simply switched to black-and-white. The shadows aren’t really harsh; they just make the images hard to parse. Neither had to go as bold with the whites and blacks as Miller’s comics did, but this can’t hold a candle to even cheap noir, much less noir cinematographer titan John Alton. (It must be a sick joke that “Sin City” exists in a world where there’s still celluloid film.) Rodriguez can’t rein Miller in because he can’t rein himself in.
Of course the gun-toting hookers (led by Rosario Dawson) return for "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For." Credit: The Weinstein Company
It keeps lazily returning to the first
Evidently this city is not very big. Back again is Mickey Rourke’s luggish Marvin, presumably seen before his execution from the first. (Let someone else work out the grand timeline.) His return is welcome, as he’s the one having the most fun in what can be a dour world of interchangeable dudes doing whispered brooding (like Brolin here).
But the script doesn’t know what to do with him. It’s amusing to sic him on frat boys who like to burn hobos, but he’s twice called on to be the guy who helps someone fight an unstoppable baddie. The gun-toting hookers (led by Rosario Dawson) are back too, because what would a Frank Miller joint be without gun-toting hookers. Apart from Green, the only person with unique spark is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays a dapper, smiling gambler — before he too is beaten to a grizzled pulp.
Jessica Alba returns to the "Sin City" franchise as a hard drinkin' stripper. Credit: The Weinstein Company
It’s pretty phony
Admittedly, the “Sin City” universe is meant to be an affectation. It’s a world of buxom babes who often forsake clothes, hookers with big guns and the brooding lugs who can’t get enough of them. It’s casually sexist; the girls are either innocent floozies (who sometimes get brutally murdered for no reason) or bad (be they good-bad or bad-bad). Miller and Rodriguez don’t shy away from this. They embrace it. They double down on it. It’s a brazenness that seems shocking the first time, but a sequel is a chance to see it for what it actually is: juvenile and stupid.
The books and films the “Sin City”s emulate are borne out of real anguish and desperation; the people who wrote them were sometimes writing from actual experience. This “Sin City” does try to be darker; every story ends with people allowing themselves to be sucked into a kind of oblivion, and even Jessica Alba’s kidnapped girl-turned-stripper — when she's not doing the film's roughly 50 stripper dances — starts hitting the bottle hard after the death of her savior (Bruce Willis, in a series of cameos that aren’t much more dignified than doing another “Expendables” picture).
But that too feels like an affectation. When characters guzzle booze from the bottle, it's like a child mimicking an adult. Its dark parts seem learned not from life but from having read about them or seen them in movies — better movies than these. And by trying to relive the glory days, "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" ruins what may have actually not been such a good time in the first place.