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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Review: Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

2005 was a long time ago. I recall the excitement of seeing the first Sin City when I was headed into my final year of college. The visual splendor and source material fidelity on display by Robert Rodriguez produced, arguably, one of the finest comic book based films ever. Whispers of a sequel have abounded since. After multiple production delays (and likely some writing ones on Co-Director Frank Miller's part) and casting issues (Rodriguez literally waited on Angelina Jolie to take a role in the production), Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is real and it exists. It's also been completely drug through the critical dirt these past few days, and is currently bombing with audiences in a theater near you (its projected tally for its opening weekend sits at around 7 million dollars). For the latter, the numerous delays may have killed any and all goodwill left over from almost a decade ago, but is this all too tardy sequel as bad as you've heard?

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is basically a triptych akin to its predecessor, and rather than the narrative diverging paths that the first film delved into, A Dame To Kill For aims for the Godfather II approach, acting as both prequel and sequel. For the most part, these stories feel like the B-Sides to the generally superior Miller yarns that appeared in the first film. The sense of agency among its key players have diminished, and the narrative thread that holds these stories together is non-existent. That doesn't mean there aren't singular pleasures to be derived from this new entry, but the exercise is akin to the someone taking outtakes and making an entire film from those remainders.

Of the three offerings that Rodriguez and Miller have crafted, the two stories involving the dirtbag Senator Rourke (Powers Boothe) work best because of the feeling of newness that surrounds those tales. Taking place basically after everything else in the first film (short of Marv's tale), the tales of Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Nancy (Jessica Alba) provide some narrative clarity and closure that was lacking in the first film and thusly become a bit more essential and satisfying because of the role they provide. When we see Johnny beating Senator Rourke in a poker game and the eventual fall-out that occurs from that action, we now understand the level of malevolence that Senator Rourke himself is capable of beyond trying to just protect his pedophile son.

All of this is of course helped by the fact that Boothe provides the best performance in the entire film, chewing the scenery with real gusto and along with Gordon-Levitt, being among the few players that actively elevate the material. I'd go so far to argue that this particular plot-thread is actively the equal of the best stories of the previous entry. "The Long Bad Night", as its called, continues the series theme of a city itself being able to actively ruin lives just by walking into its borders. "The Long Bad Night" would have made a great short film on its own and is the one real triumph on display here.

Nancy's tale, entitled "Nancy's Last Dance" is a bit less essential, as it could be easily argued there was no need to retain any sense of narrative closure after the death of "the only man she ever loved" Hartigan (Bruce Willis). But the general sense of uncertainty for Nancy's safety, and the fact that this is the only arc in the entire series that features a female in any sort of leading role, gives it a value that surpasses the lesser title story that soaks up so much of the running time. Alba isn't overly impressive, but she does nothing to really sink the proceedings, and again Boothe strikes a cutting figure of malevolence and a figure to root against. Willis appears as a ghostly visage throughout, the idea of which strikes at a fairly typical noir trope of the visions of love lost. The general brevity of both of these stories and their sense of occurring at or around the same time gives off a nice side-quel type quality, fleshing out edges of Basin City effectively.

Where Sin City: A Dame To Kill For goes terribly wrong is in its title story, which is the only one based off of a currently existing Sin City comic. Focusing on Dwight (played by Clive Owen in the first film, and now Josh Brolin) and his being pulled back into his violent past by ex-lover Ava (Eva Green), which then puts him squarely at odds with Manute, her hulking chauffeur (Dennis Haysbert, taking over after Michael Clarke Duncan's death). Almost everything this sequence is a misfire. Brolin's performance as Dwight is completely at odds with Owen's and sadly inferior, possessing none of the natural gravitas that Owen brought to the role. This end of the film also suffers from the standard "prequel problems", in that we know Dwight is going to end out on top, cutting out basically any of the dramatic tension. Of course, perhaps you may be interested in how Manute lost his eye or how Brolin-Dwight becomes Owen-Dwight (in a development that is sadly pretty laughable in terms of presentation), but it doesn't add up to compelling cinema on-screen. All the beats of the previous film feel repeated; from Dwight and Manute clashing to the Old Town Girls (lead by Rosario Dawson's Gail) getting involved in the fray, but when this conflict has already been seen to its close, the question becomes what point this story even holds anymore. Green does her darndest to liven everything up with a vampy performance that you'd expect from a classic Femme Fatale, but even she gets embroiled in the general hum-drum with a subplot about a police detective (played by Christopher Meloni) that should have found its way to the cutting room floor.

Marv (Mickey Rourke) also appears, which is no surprise given that he was THE breakout character of Sin City and the role that arguably reinvigorated this former Oscar winner's career. Sadly, Marv gets little to do throughout, beyond killing and gawking at Nancy's dancing from the his seat at the bar. He makes perfunctory appearances in each story, serving the exact same role in two of them and appearing annoyingly in Johnny's tale for no reason at all. Marv no longer feels like the sad palooka that we were treated to in 2005, instead he's basically The Punisher now, dealing out justice anywhere he sees fit whether it adds up logically or not. Marv isn't down on his luck anymore so much as he's just up in your business. Sure, there's something thrilling about watching he and Manute duke it out, but it's probably the only worthwhile moment the character gets the entire film. Much like the return visit to Dwight and Gail, this revisit to our favorite bruiser proves that oftentimes its better to leave well enough alone.

Some might argue that could be the lesson learned here for the entire exercise that is Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, but for those who fell under the spell of Rodriguez's visual panache and Miller's hard-boiled storytelling oh so long ago will find at least half a film that's worth watching, and another half that while flawed never quite reaches the lows of this year's other Miller-inspired, Eva Green led sequel 300: Rise Of An Empire. Sin City: A Dame To Kill For isn't must see viewing, but its a return trip that's probably better than you've heard.
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