Dan at the Movies: Sin City: a Dame to Kill For

It was nearly ten years ago that Sin City swept into theatres, and man alive was it a sight to see at the time. From the way Robert Rodriguez took the exact images from Frank Miller’s original comics and brought them to stark, mostly black and white life, to the way the incredible cast made the pulp dialogue sing. I loved Sin City, and used to watch two of the four stories over and over again from the booth of the Moviedome. So naturally I was thrilled at the talk of a sequel, since there were still Sin City graphic novels very much worth adapting. Which meant that talk of Frank Miller writing new stories to include in the sequel was a little discouraging. First of all, because that lowered the odds of them using the stories I wanted to see on the screen, and second of all, because Frank Miller has lost it.

No, seriously, he’s lost it completely.

Frank Miller did some good comics work in the 80s, but these days he’s gone around the bend, and nothing proves that more than his attempts to revisit past glories. I would have thought that The Dark Knight Strikes Back would have proven that for everyone, but apparently we needed more evidence, and now we have it.

But instead of a fresh installment of what has always been an anthology series, what we got was a movie trying to remind us of the original, by re-using as many of the characters as possible.

Included in the movie are two stories from the comics: Just Another Saturday Night, a short featuring Mickey Rourke’s Marv, back from the first movie’s The Hard Goodbye (the very first Sin City story), and the titular A Dame to Kill For, featuring Dwight from the original’s The Big Fat Kill (played by Josh Brolin, as this story takes place before he had plastic surgery to instead resemble Clive Owen… no, really, that’s what happens). Added in are one new story featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a card shark targeting Senator Roark, who you may remember from the first film’s That Yellow Bastard, part of the Roark family which controls Sin City and keeps it the pit of crime and corruption that it is, and the long-discussed direct sequel to That Yellow Bastard in which Nancy the stripper (Jessica Alba) is out to avenge her savior/lover Detective Hartigan (Bruce Willis, back as a ghostly presence in Nancy’s life), who killed himself in the hopes that it would spare Nancy from Senator Roark’s anger over the death of his horrifying, serial killing, child molesting son at Hartigan’s hands.

Okay. Let’s break this down entry by entry.

Just Another Saturday Night

This is meant to be a quick intro back into the world of Sin City, as Marv goes after four frat boys for setting hobos on fire, ending with two of them being taken out by the army of prostitutes that rule Old Town (because Frank Miller loves him some whores).

What it actually does is underline the problem with this entire movie. Where the first film’s cold open, The Customer is Always Right, provided a perfect intro to the noir storytelling, visual style, and general lack of what you’d call happy endings that we the viewers could come to expect, Just Another Saturday Night shows us that Rodriguez and Miller don’t fully recall how the visual style worked last time while shouting “Hey everybody! It’s Marv! Remember Marv? We all liked Marv vengeance-murdering his way up the criminal ladder last time, right?”

In other words, it’s Marv without the thrills, occasional wit, and “I can’t believe they just did that” winces of The Hard Goodbye. They brought back the characters we loved, with none of the reasons why we loved them. Roll opening credits, and try to lower your expectations.

The Thing With Joseph Gordon-Levitt

I don’t know what this one’s called. I do know that I’ll watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt in practically anything, because he’s awesome.

Sadly the material doesn’t always rise to his level.

Johnny is an interesting character, and his motivations and methods for taking down Senator Roark are unexpected, but this story has the same issues as the rest: it’s a little too grim. I mean, they’re all grim. That’s the point. But the first film had lighter moments. This installment comes closest to recreating that, if only through Johnny’s undeniable charms, but there’s still not a lot of smiles or laughs to be had, and a lot of asking ourselves “Why are you showing this illicit poker game how good you are at manipulating cards, do you want them to know you’re cheating?”

It’s… okay. It would have been the worst if it had been part of the original, but here it’s almost a highlight.

Also Marv is in it. Because heaven forbid we have even one entry without Marv this time around.

A Dame to Kill For

Now this entry had every possible advantage it could. It’s a prequel to The Big Fat Kill, my favourite of the original entries, and (of course) also features Marv as Dwight’s emergency muscle. It has the most returning characters, featuring Rosario Dawson’s violent madam Gail, twin prostitutes Goldie and Wendy, and a re-cast deadly little Miho giving us our only taste of the blood-splattered “holy shit” action sequences of the first film, just with less charisma than when it was Devon Aoki (who had to bow out due to pregnancy). And it has the film’s real breakout performance, Eva Green as Eva Lord, the so-called dame to kill for that’s getting Dwight into more trouble than a trunk full of dismembered cops did last time around.

But it’s pretty clear this was a later entry in the Sin City graphic novels. The narration already feels forced and less engaging. Two minutes into the story and I was already getting tired of Dwight narrating about how hard it was to keep himself under control. And again, there’s less fun, less endlessly quotable moments, less to enjoy here than in its predecessor. It’s still the most fun, the most interesting, and the best written story of the entire movie, but you’re probably starting to get the impression that that isn’t a huge accomplishment.

As to Eva Lord. She might well be the most compelling and powerful female character either movie managed to present (even if her motives become a little cliche and two-dimensional), and Eva Green plays the hell out of her… but it’s hard to deny one little sticking point.

She is naked a lot. I mean, a lot. Which, depending on your perspective, could read as an endorsement rather than a condemnation, I suppose, but here’s the thing. I saw this with several female friends, and the fact that Eva might have been exposed more often than not really started to feel awkward. I could picture other women I know asking how necessary this was, and I didn’t have a good answer.

Now, a certain amount of nudity works well with this role: Eva Lord uses her sexuality to control men, it’s her primary tactic, and she’s adept at it. But I’m just going to admit… they could have dialed it down a touch. One could argue they were just sticking with the imagery from the comics, but if one were to argue that, I would ask one to recall how naked Nancy the stripper was supposed to be, and how many fucks Jessica Alba gave about that.

The answers are “Very naked” and “Zero fucks.” So there were other choices they could have made.

Still, if one were to watch this movie, A Dame to Kill For is going to be your one big highlight. It’s all downhill from there.

Fun fact: Clive Owen was going to reprise post-surgery Dwight, but he had a schedule conflict, so they used prosthetics to make Josh Brolin look like Clive Owen’s Dwight. Which, frankly, is probably better for the story. Less confusing for new people. Not there’ve been many of those.

Nancy’s revenge

And here, at the end, it all falls apart.

That Yellow Bastard wasn’t my favourite of the first film. It’s the one I rewatched the least. Well, after The Customer is Always Right. But it wasn’t bad, it was just bleak. The (possibly) one good cop in Basin City (get it?) goes to prison for lethally defending a young girl from a vicious predator, simply because said predator’s father was Senator Roark, who basically owned the police, and wanted his child-murdering son to be President some day. Roark uses freakish medical science to save his son’s life and regrow some bits that Hartigan shot off, son becomes That Yellow Bastard as a result, uses a released Hartigan to find the girl (Nancy, now a stripper, as I’ve mentioned), Hartigan and the Yellow Bastard face off one more time, Hartigan shoots himself in the hope that Senator Roark won’t go after Nancy if Hartigan’s already dead and unhurtable.

Like I said, bleak. Sin City isn’t a place where a grizzled ex-cop and the much younger woman who’s loved him for half her life get to ride off into any sort of sunset. But apparently that ending wasn’t good enough, so Frank Miller wrote an all-new story in which Nancy, four years later, is still filled with rage and despair, and is trying to work up the nerve to kill Roark for revenge.

And it serves as the final proof that Frank Miller has lost whatever talent he may have had, because it is terrible. Hartigan’s ghost wandering about in torment, Nancy’s narration, the general sluggishness of the plot, shoehorning in Marv to be Nancy’s backup, none of it really works. By the halfway point I found myself just picking apart the continuity issues that having Marv in this story created, as Marv’s presence puts this solidly before The Hard Goodbye. Examples:

  • By the end, Nancy’s lost her love of dancing, died her hair black, has several cuts on her face, and is a vicious killer. In The Hard Goodbye, she’s blonde, unscarred, dancing, and seems happy and well-adjusted. So I’m forced to assume she gets over everything, because no part of the Hard Goodbye could have happened before this story.
  • Also I assume that the Basin City police have zero luck finding either of the people who broke into stately Roark manner and left a trail of bodies in their wake. Nor the Secret Service, who are typically called in to this sort of thing. I know this because Marv and Nancy are just living their lives in relative peace by The Hard Goodbye, which once again, must logically take place after this.
  • Still, you’d think that after Senator Roark was killed in his own home, Cardinal Roark might have had better security.

All in all, having Marv in this story creates a huge pile of narrative problems, and the rest of the story just isn’t good enough to allow me not to notice them. Nancy turning from stripper to assassin and teaming up with a popular character to give the audience the justice-murder they were denied last time plays like bad Sin City fanfic, and the fact that it’s from the original author is just sad.

But what’s really sad, is that since this sequel was such a disappointment and, probably as a result, is tanking at the box office, I’m never going to see an adaption of the Sin City story Hell and Back, which at one point features the protagonist assaulting an enemy compound while high on powerful hallucinogens, meaning it would have been written like Sin City but shot like Spy Kids.

And I wanted to see that. Oh well. Maybe I’ll just find a way to rewatch the original Sin City this week. Or Guardians of the Galaxy. One of those.

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