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
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