The original Sin City left me surprisingly cold. It adhered so closely to Frank Miller’s original comic vision that it forgot to be cinematic. It was like one of those “motion comics” they occasionally try to sell us where they deliver CGI-motion versions of the actual book, frame by agonizing frame. Sure the images onscreen looked great, but they had nowhere to go, and while Miller’s prose was grand on paper, it turned into a shuddery mess when spoken by actual actors. Still, the venture proved a success and a sequel looked extremely promising. For various reasons, it didn’t happen the way anyone expected… but it did eventually happen, and I’m pleased to say that A Dame to Kill For improves upon its predecessor.
Director Robert Rodriguez had nine years to study his first effort, and returns with more confidence in his own ability to do this material justice. Miller meets him halfway by developing new characters and scenarios specific to this film, and while the dialogue remains as unwieldy as ever, the product as a whole feels much more organic than the first film. It thus becomes easier to forgive its shortcomings (Why Frank? Why do you hate women so, so much?) and just wallow in the unparalleled neo-noir that unfurls before us.
Once again, Rodriguez weaves multiple stories in and out of each other, most of them centered around the titular women and the men who want them. We’ve already met Nancy (Jessica Alba), still dancing for her supper and now deeply in mourning over her lost protector Hartigan (Bruce Willis). Then there’s Gail (Rosario Dawson) and her elite band of ninja hookers, keeping an eye on Dwight (Josh Brolin, taking over for Clive Owen) who’s falling for a serious piece of bad news. Ava Lord (Eva Green) has him wrapped around her little finger, and with a gal this deadly, that spells trouble for everyone. Marv (Mickey Rourke) continues to trample through it all like a bull in a china shop, while newcomer Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds a unique way to take on the always terrifying Senator Roark (Powers Boothe).
In short, it’s just another wild night in Sin City, and this time around, the newcomers get the best of it. I honestly don’t know where this picture would be without Green, the fatalest of femmes, who once again takes a stock-in-trade female stereotype and resolutely makes it her own. She refuses to bow to our expectations of how this character should act, instead making her evil temptress a player in a vicious game where only the strong survive. The other actresses can’t quite match her act (Why, Frank? Why?), but her work reverberates through the film, and gives her fellow gals a little more assertiveness than they might have carried otherwise.
Then there’s Gordon-Levitt, who is deceptively good at this kind of material. He plays the luckiest gambler alive, and his combination of surface innocence and deep-set will make him the closest thing to an actual hero we’ll find in this universe. That precludes Marv, of course, whom Miller dotes upon as usual and whom Rourke continues to embody with unparalleled perfection.
For his part Rodriguez inspires the kind of confidence to attract a cast this strong, which is a good thing, because the stories themselves remain quite a mess. Style goes a long way, and few movies are as pleasing to simply gaze at as this one. Unfortunately, the artifice eventually starts to wear thin and the narrative beneath it can’t quite escape the clichés it hopes to redefine. The lines still clunk, and while the actors can handle it well, it doesn’t do anything to cut the overwhelming artifice surrounding it all. This time, at least, the pros outweigh the cons (though just barely at times), and A Dame to Kill For’s eager embrace of the R rating makes for a bracing change from most comic book movies these days. Was it worth the nine-year wait? That’s in the eye of beholder. This time, at least, it’s still worth another couple of hours.