When Robert Rodriguez's Sin City stormed into theaters in the spring of 2005, it blew me away by it's brand of over-the-top noir. I'd never seen anything like it -- graphic in design, relentlessly violent and gleefully debauched. I saw it four times in theaters. I bought all the graphic novels and devoured them. And then, I eagerly awaited the sequel. Finally, Rodriguez has brought most of his original cast back together for Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. But after repeated delays, a staggered production schedule, and nearly a decade since its predecessor, how did this long-awaited follow-up turn out? In a word: YEESH.
Like Sin City, its sequel is a tangle of interweaving plots that reject chronological order. In this snarl, there's the story of a hotheaded young gambler (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a revenge-fueled stripper (Jessica Alba), and Ava the titular femme fatale (Eva Green) who lures an old flame (Josh Brolin) into a dangerous game.
I wanted to like this movie. I had hoped to be sucked into Frank Miller's ultra-violent world, where men are bruisers, women use sex as a weapon, and power is corrupt, always. But there are too many obstacles to enjoy Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. The first of which is just how messy this movie is. Where the first film's structure cast aside linear storytelling for a high-octane pace, its sequel does so without apparent reason. Its pace is painfully slow, with plot lines trudging along for untold days, weeks or months, rather than zinging from one high-impact sequence to the next. Frankly, it makes the movie confusing, without a clear demarcation of time that has passed. If I hadn't read the graphic novels, following the plot would have been a struggle.
Criminally, the clunky pace kills the tension that electrified the original Sin City. Instead, we're given repetitive scenes of cops (underused duo Jeremy Piven and Christopher Meloni) bickering, nearly nude Nancy bumbling around drunk and "dancing" (I can't in good conscious call Alba's jangling wiggles dancing), Brolin glowering, and Green's villainess lounging about nude, in water. The last of these is done with such intense devotion and leering that's it could qualify as high camp and hilarious. But overall, Rodriguez and Miller, with whom he shared directing cred, failed spectacularly to make these stories of sex, betrayal, murder and revenge exciting or satisfying.
There is loads of star power in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, from those already mentioned to Mickey Rourke, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Christopher Lloyd, Juno Temple and Ray Liotta. However few of the cast's most promising performers earn more than five minutes of screentime. Instead, we are subjected to Brolin's doing a dead-eyed glare/sneer combo, and Alba trying and failing to project agony and grit.
After the arc of "That Yellow Bastard," Hartigan (Willis) is dead, leaving Nancy alone and filled with rage. She dreams of murdering Senator Rourke, but does she have the will to pull the trigger? Frankly, who cares? Watching Alba stagger around playing the lamest attempt at drunk I've ever seen, I totally lost interest in her story. Alba is lovely, and has an affable screen presence. But she is not an actress who can play what this script (clichéd and schlocky as it may be) dealt her. It's painful to watch her try to play the hardened tough girl, and when she's called on to do fight scenes, another glaring issue with Sin City 2 shows.
The fight scenes are by and large sloppy. They seem unrehearsed, with blows looking staged, and rolls looking laughable. It's bad enough to make you wonder about the budget of Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. And then as if to assure me that it was insufficient, here come the women of Old Town. In the first film, the introduction to the prostitutes who are feared and desired was a powerful image. Each woman cut a distinctive figure with an individually kinky look. This time, the costumes lacked texture and definition. As a gaggle of girls in shredded dance clothes strut into frame, they reminded me more of forgettable girl groups like SWV or All Saints than a band of deadly women.
The costumes throughout lacked the luster and panache of Sin City's established aesthetic. Dominatrix Gail switches from a sloppily studded hood to a cheap blonde wig and grey t-shirt, and it's actually distracting how out of sync these cheap duds look in the sharp, high contrast world of Sin City. The set design is similarly unimpressive, with sparse furniture and little attention to detail. At one point, I noticed a character lean on a wall of her swanky home, and beneath her hand the wall paper rippled away as if it were ready to fall off. That take made it into the movie. That's the level Rodriguez has fallen to.
Whatever faults the first film had, it undeniably boasted a sharp visual style and verve. Neither is true of its sequel. The high contrast look is largely gone. The graphics are few and far between. The pops of color are random, and without apparent meaning. And the upgrade to higher definition cameras makes every actor look haggard, even the baby-faced ingénue Julia Garner, who plays an angelic whore whose milky skin is full-color--even the iridescent bags under her eyes. The blemishes and bumps on every actor's face look even more aggressive against the textureless tee shirts Rodriguez (and/or Miller) has slapped on them. It's ugly, and not in a good way.
There's only one thing in this whole big trainwreck of a movie that really worked for me, and that's Eva Green. With Dark Shadows, Penny Dreadful and 300: Rise of an Empire, Green is establishing a reputation as the best part of low-class (and often bad) productions. Here she is a femme fatale distilled into sex and violence with no discernible humanity. She's a caricature, not a person. But at least she's fun to watch. Rodriguez telegraphs Ava's betrayal from her first frame, making his anti-hero an unbelievable idiot to believe her lies. But Green is living for every moment of her role here. Whether she's brandishing her tits as a hypnotic tool, spitting noir clichés through blood red lipstick or looking devastatingly beautiful but bored, Green is so over-the-top that it's sickly entertaining. But sadly, though she is the dame to kill for, she's not the central villain. And so the plot chugs along without her to a final reel that lacks sizzle or a strong finale.
Rather than a passion project, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For feels like a half-hearted obligation. The plot is disjointed, the pace grueling. The performances range from flat-lining to bonkers. Action sequences have incredible sound design that gives some blows a palpable zing. But the physicality of the actors doesn't sell the violence. The look is muddied by a dull art design. And the finale ends with a whisper, not a bang.
If you're looking for more of what you loved from the first movie, there are moments here that should please. But as little effort as seems to have been put into making this monstrosity, I can't possibly recommend paying the steep fee of theater tickets to experience those handful of highlights.