Directors: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dennis Haysbert, Rosario Dawson, Powers Booth, Bruce Willis
Released in 2005, Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City was a critical and popular hit, with its stylised violence and heightened neo-noir aesthetic. Pioneering in its use of green screen technology and digital settings, Sin City was among the first films which actively sought to reflect rather than disguise its graphic novel origins. Almost immediately there was talk of multiple sequels being in the pipeline with a number of big name stars supposedly attached. Yet somehow it has taken nine years for a follow up, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, to hit the screens. Unfortunately, it has not been worth the wait.
As with the first film, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is made up of interwoven but unconnected episodes. Entering into the shady world of Basin City, we jump from one protagonist to another. In “Just Another Saturday Night,” Marv struggles to remember a violent encounter with a group of frat boys which has, unsurprisingly, ended in carnage. “The Long, Bad Night” sees a cocky young gambler arriving in town to play some poker, with a view to taking down the big fish, Senator Rourke. In “A Dame to Kill For,” private investigator Dwight is manipulated by an old flame, Ava Lord, into committing a murder. While “Nancy’s Last Dance” reintroduces stripper Nancy Callahan, wallowing in grief and despair four years after the suicide of her saviour John Hartigan and determined to have her revenge.
Like its predecessor, the strength of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For lies in its visuals. The aesthetic, featuring high contrast black and white with splashes of colour, is still very striking and the incorporation of 3D only helps to immerse you into this comic book world. That said, striking visuals can only carry a film so far. They have to be in support of an engaging story and characters, and that is where Sin City: A Dame to Kill For falls short. Despite the new narratives and the introduction of new characters the film doesn’t manage to go anywhere new. It feels like a movie made up of deleted scenes from the original. So where the first Sin City felt exciting and fresh, this sequel gets old very quickly. When a movie feels longer than its 100 minute runtime, it is never a good sign.
As funny as it sounds given its aesthetic, Rodriguez and Miller’s film is crying out for some light and shade. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For entirely one note. There is no modulation of tone. Eventually the brutal violence and misogyny blurs together into an indeterminate mess. Bruce Willis’s character, Hartigan, served an important function in the first film. He was its hero and evidence of hope and morality in an immoral world. While Willis appears sporadically in the sequel as a ghost watching over Nancy, no character takes up this function. So we are presented with a world devoid of any sort of hope. Without even a glimmer of hope, we don’t engage as fully with the despair.
Returning to this world after nine years, it is challenging to draw connections between the original film and the sequel. This is partly the result of a number of roles being recast – Josh Brolin replaces Clive Owen, Dennis Haysbert replaces the late Michael Clarke Duncan, Jeremy Piven replaces Michael Madsen – but also the result of some confusing chronology. Some of the episodes obviously follow on from the events of the first film while others are prequels and there is no clear differentiation between them.
Frank Miller imagined Basin City as a man’s world and as a result the representation of women in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is at best questionable, at worst downright misogynistic. Every female character is either a prostitute or a stripper, a femme fatale or a temptress. The filmmakers argue that they present strong female characters, assumedly on the grounds that some of them commit acts of violence rather than just being victims, but even these warrior women are presented as male fantasies for consumption by a male audience. You will lose count of the number of times a female character is introduced into a scene with a leering close up of her backside. The only female character with any real agency in the story is Ava Lord, who is brilliantly portrayed as the classic noir femme fatale by Eva Green (though more frequently nude than a classical Hollywood character would ever have been). But even in this case her power comes from her ability to manipulate men to do things for her rather than her ability to do anything for herself.
Nowhere is the film’s failure to match the nuance and subtlety of classic film noir as evident as in its faux-hard-boiled narration. First person narration, one of the hallmarks of film noir, is stretched to breaking point here. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For descends into a competition between gruff and growly men trying to out-husky-voice each other. The characters seemingly narrating every thought that goes through their head, leaving no room for subtext. Thankfully it eventually passes through being insufferable and just becomes white noise. It also serves as evidence that just because a line might work on the comic book page doesn’t mean it will translate to the screen.
With nothing new to say, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is little more than a pale imitation of its predecessor and were it not for an engaging performance from Eva Green it would hardly have been worth returning to after nine years.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Sin City: A Dame to Kill For? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: John Moore
Starring: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Yuliya Snigir, Rasha Bukvic, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
In the 1980s Hollywood was overtaken by blockbuster fever, and a major beneficiary of the studios’ quest for the perfect high concept franchise was the action movie. The 1980s saw action cinema at the peak of its prominence. Films like The Terminator, Predator and the Rambo trilogy had made Schwarzenegger and Stallone among the biggest stars on the planet. But arguably the best movie to come out of the 1980s action cinema was John McTiernan’s Die Hard. Released in 1988 it propelled Bruce Willis into mega-stardom and really raised the bar in terms of quality for action movies. It introduced a blue-print which would be followed by big and loud Hollywood action movie from then on, the one-man army. We were introduced to John McClane, an engaging and charismatic hero, a modern American cowboy who was never short of a witty wise-crack (it is interesting to see the way that McClane’s trademark “yippee-ki-yay motherfucker” starts out with a context, coming out of villain Hans Gruber’s suggestion that he is just playing cowboy, and as the series goes on it is reduced to a simple catchphrase). That hero was then placed in story with a simple but effective premise. He just happened to be in the building that was taken over by terrorists. That building then becomes a labyrinth in which a game of cat-and-mouse can take place. The original Die Hard is a legitimately great movie.
While the sequels released over the 25 years since have steadily declined in quality, the character of John McClane remains, and it is the audience’s goodwill towards this character which keeps them coming back, each time hoping against hope that this one will be better than the previous slightly underwhelming sequel. Unfortunately, this is where A Good Day to Die Hard really drops the ball. In Skip Woods’ screenplay, John McClane is practically reduced to a supporting character in his own movie. The film sees McClane travel to Moscow in order to bring home his estranged son, Jack, who he discovers has been arrested. However, it turns out that his son is actually a CIA agent on a covert mission to rescue a prisoner named Komorov who knows some rather damning information about a Russian politician. After Jack breaks Komorov out, McClane joins his less charismatic son on his mission, and spends most of the remaining screentime following his son around. As a result, the one-man-army which had been the central structure of the previous four Die Hard films is not in place here.
So rarely has a good sequel ever been built around the introduction of a child for our hero. It was worked fine in Live Free or Die Hard (known in some countries as Die Hard 4.0), where the introduced child was his daughter, who mainly served as a motivation for our hero. She was the thing he needed to rescue. But introducing a child to serve as the next generation of hero only ever seems to frustrate audiences, yet lazy writers continue to go back to that well.
Of course, the other staple of the Die Hard series is explosive action, and that is still very much present. John Moore makes sure he gives his audience the requisite amount of carnage, with a major car chase, some quite impressive sequences with a helicopter, and lots and lots of guns. Some of the action sequences do employ digitally generated shots, which can be slightly jarring, not because they are poorly executed, simply that they are stylistically inconsistent with the aesthetic of the other films in the series.
I so badly wanted this movie to be good, or at least good enough, but while it had its moments and there is plenty for the fan of large-scale, explosive action, only the most blindly devoted Die Hard fan will be really satisfied with this one.
Rating – ★★
Review by Duncan McLean