Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is like Paris after the zombie apocalypse: beautiful to look at but not a living soul in sight.
The sequel to 2005’s visually groundbreaking Sin City, which in turn was based on Miller’s popular graphic novels, is once again an homage to the hard-boiled fiction and film noir of mid-20th century America. Its blend of live action, animation, CGI and comic-book sensibilities is full of long shadows and dark moods, its stunning black-and-white palette often violently streaked red with blood.
And it’s all narrated, in classic Raymond Chandler/James Cain tough-guy style, by men short on tact and timidity but well-versed in the poetry of the uppercut and the right hook.
Yet unlike the work of Miller and Rodriguez’s heroes, there’s little substance beneath the style, no art beyond the artifice.
A collection of four somewhat related stories, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For first plunges viewers into the perpetual nighttime world of Basin City, aka Sin City, through Marv (Mickey Rourke), the hard-drinking, hard-driving, hard-to-look-at slab of muscle from the first film who also weaves in and out of this story. He wakes up after a rough night and wonders how he got there.
Then there’s Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a good-looking guy with a cool car and a casino’s worth of luck with the ladies and the slots. But his luck may have run out when he goes up against devious Sen. Roark (Powers Boothe), also in the first film, in a game of poker.
And pity poor Dwight (Josh Brolin), a lug of a man no stranger to Sin City’s bars who’s still carrying the flame for his ex Ava (Eva Green) even though she’s with wealthy Damien Lord (Marton Csokas).
Also entranced by her is a cop named Mort (Christopher Meloni) whose sidekick Bob (Jeremy Piven) tries to warn him that there may be more to her than meets the male gaze. She says she needs rescuing from Damien and his henchman Manute (Dennis Haysbert), but should Dwight or Mort believe this curvaceous femme fatale?
Lastly, there’s Nancy (Jessica Alba), also from the previous Sin City, an exotic dancer at Kandie’s Bar.
But she has murder on her mind. She wants to bump off Roark because he and his son were responsible for the death of the man who had saved her, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), the last time around. Hartigan returns as a spirit of sorts.
There are a few funny lines in Frank Miller’s script, especially for anyone familiar with the tropes of pulp fiction. And Rodriguez deserves special mention for multitasking as film editor, cinematographer and co-composer of the music.
Yet it’s hard to care about any of it; there’s little here but affectation. While it’s a better film than, say, Gangster Squad, last year’s well-designed but empty period-piece crime saga, it, too, feels like an excuse to play dress-up.
And, because its charms are all intertwined with its technique, it becomes slow-going once the marvel of the visuals begins to fade. It’s easy to feel every second of Sin City’s 102 minutes.
Of course, the original Sin City suffered some of the same problems but it was at least the first of its kind; 300 — another Miller tale turned into a visually impressive film — would come the following year.
Sure, Dame looks good, but it’s reminiscent of a line from Chandler’s hard-boiled classic The Long Goodbye, in which our hero Philip Marlowe is schooled in the ways of American culture: “We make the finest packages in the world, Mr. Marlowe. The stuff inside is mostly junk.”