By Sean Czarnecki, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 1, 2014
I appreciate the right kind of crazy in a person, and there is plenty of crazy in “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.” The black-and-white CGI is gaudy, the nudity is brazen, the one-liners pile on and the gore spills. It is loud and tasteless, but taste isn’t the point. It is not elegant, and never claims to be. Absurdity means everything in a neo-noir universe like this, where the poker chips stack as high as cities, chivalry is punished, and the lines that are drawn are always crossed. Attitude is everything. Unfortunately, Frank Miller’s latest dreamscape — however nasty, however wicked — never reaches that same level of insanity its predecessor had, which made it an unqualified success.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Rave and Quality 16
“Sin City” was a novelty back in 2005 when it was released. Freed from the normal boundaries of taste, you got the sense Miller was reveling in the opportunity to adapt his characters for the big screen, with co-director Robert Rodriguez (“Machete Kills”) adding campy touches all his own. The stylized CGI visual palette of high contrast black-and-white, coupled with unapologetic violence and sexuality, appealed to our fascination with crime. Benicio Del Toro’s (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) turn as the undead Jackie Boy was inspired. Bruce Willis’ (“G.I. Joe: Retaliation”) self-parody of the grizzled cop he plays so often earned smart laughter. But you won’t find such inspiration in this installment. It would not surprise me if we look back on “A Dame to Kill For” as the end of an era of this kind of visual style.
“A Dame to Kill For” is divided up into four separate stories, each of them about as good as the other, and each following a single protagonist. Marv (Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”) is out killing frat boys. Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Don Jon”) is an arrogant card player who plays a risky game against Sin City’s most powerful politician, Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe, TV’s “Deadwood”). Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin, “Men in Black 3”) is a private detective haunted by his past, and drawn back hopelessly into the schemes of his old lover Ava Lord (Eva Green, “300: Rise of an Empire”). And finally, Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba, “Machete”), in despair, in the madness of revenge, is out to kill Senator Roarke for the untimely end of the man she loved, John Hartigan (Willis).
Like the original, “A Dame to Kill For” owes much of its appeal to its ensemble cast. You get the sense this movie is a costume party and its actors come dressed “to the nines.” Christopher Lloyd (yeah, dude, like Doc Brown from “Back to the Future”) makes a cameo as a doctor who shoots up heroin before every operation. (It’s how he’s got those steady hands.) It’s a brilliant high point of the movie; if only there were more moments like it, with that same outrageous humor. The actors seem to be having fun, but for all the noise, it was repetitive and I ended up just being bored. The amnesia-prone Marv serves as a convenient metaphor: lumbering, ponderous, hungover, constantly re-tracing his own steps.
My political awareness has grown since I was thirteen, when I first saw “Sin City” and the “awesome” factor was all that mattered. It’s time now to acknowledge the series’ conflicts with its treatment of women. I do understand Rodriguez and Miller are treating their subject matter tongue-in-cheek and that they parody and follow the “exploitation” tradition of the ’70s and ’80s — films like “I Spit on Your Grave.” I understand also they wanted to create capable women that are dangerous, who weaponize their sexuality and punish lechery. These are women who like sex. They are confident in their bodies. Still, at the same time these women empower themselves, they are limited. While Miller and Rodriguez play with male gaze, they want to titillate their audience with these women’s bodies. They avoid some sexisms and fall hopelessly into others. In short, they want to have their cake and to eat it, too. We have to think about that contradiction. This is not to condemn nor defend the series. This is just to think about that conflict, because of how important it is in today's culture.
The death of Lauren Bacall, who starred alongside Humphrey Bogart, throws the influence of film noir into sharp relief. Haven’t we all wanted to sit smug as hell in a wreath of cigarette smoke, in the slants of light coming through the window shades? Can’t we brood in the shadows? If only to put our noir “hats” back on, “A Dame to Kill For” might be worth the trip. For me, thinking back on how good the original “Sin City” was, and how lousy this one is as an example of noir — it’s just depressing.