Movies

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

I actually walked into Sin City A Dame To Kill For cautiously optimistic. Sure it had been nine years since the first Sin City and belated sequels almost never turn out well. Furthermore, in those nine years Frank Miller went from “absurdist vulgarian” to “crazy old man shouting at squirrels in the park” (his initial title of “damn good storyteller” having vanished a ways back). But my expectations were so low that I figured if I got to see Joseph Gordon Levitt look good in a suit, Mickey Rourke hit someone and Powers Boothe monologue I’d have gotten my money’s worth.

Well the joke’s on me because despite technically filling all three requirements Sin City A Dame To Kill For left a sour taste in my mouth. It’s a film so fundamentally broken on so many levels I hardly know where to begin. It’s legitimately foul, incompetent and serves as a frightening testament to the deterioration of Frank Miller’s skills as a storyteller. Not to mention Robert Rodriguez’s, whose films this decade have been so bad that I am legitimately worried. Can we stage an intervention?

I had actually rewatched Sin City the night before seeing its sequel and genuinely believe it holds up as a slice of pure id. Say what you will about Sin City but it’s propulsive to the point of being apocalyptic. The film is an exaggeration of an exaggeration of an exaggeration and it has a crazed energy. “The Hard Goodbye” is a relentless, psychotic piece of pulp. “The Big Fat Kill” looks a bit chintzy, but it also has Clive Owen as the king of cool and the crazed riff on Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia that he and Del Toro pull off for the rest of the segment. And “The Yellow Bastard” is just fucking mean.

Sin City 2 on the other hand just lays there. Almost unbelievably turgid in its pacing, it has all the momentum of a car wreck, so let’s do some rubbernecking.

The Good

The Good: Um- er-wait… Something will come to me…

Well for all the many things that I have said and will say about Sin City 2, I have to give it credit for realizing what an undervalued underused screen presence Powers Boothe is. Boothe hasn’t been in the center of a movie like this in a long time and he masticates over every line like its porterhouse. In a movie that bends over backward until nearly breaks itself in half trying to reach the right tone, Booth is the only one who seems like he’s actually in a crime movie. Even if by the end of the film he has been reduced to a jack in the box looming out of the dark to say boo and recite a paragraph of dialogue that he makes sound sinister through pure force of will before disappearing into the dark again.

His most frequent dueling partner, Joseph Gordon Levitt also walks away more or less unscathed. The story he’s in is so poorly told and constructed that it feels like a dare, but at this point in his career Levitt is bullet proof and he does look great in a suit.

Of the returning cast, Rosario Dawson seems the only one who’s legitimately pleased to be back. Everyone else looks bored. Oh wait we’re still in the good aren’t we?

The Bad

The Bad: Everything else. Apathy comes off the film in palatable waves. Sin City 2 is the worst paced film I’ve seen in memory. Basic screenwriting 101 things like rising action, character investment, climaxes, payoffs have become foreign concepts to Miller at this point in his career. Comparing the two new stories to the “A Dame To Kill For” segement is legitimately depressing. Say what you will about it (and trust me I will have much to say) “A Dame To Kill For” is a story, it takes twists and turns, there are actions with consequences, it develops into something (and even it has a subplot that as far as I could discern had no narrative purpose save to stop the film dead in its tracks every time it came on screen). It’s not good, but compared to the other two segments whose summaries would read like, “Something happens, then something happens, then another thing happens and then the story is over” it’s Out Of The Past.

Everything is flat; aside from a handful of nice shots the visual style is unimaginative and hackneyed. The action is staged so carelessly that there were a few sequences I legitimately had trouble believing were in a movie that I had paid money in a theater to see. The returning actors are all disappointments aside from the aforementioned Boothe and Dawson. Bruce Willis is so useless that if you told me he refused to perform his role and Rodriguez was reduced to filming him sulking around the set I would believe you. Mickey Rourke is a huge disappointment. Sin City was really the first role of Rourke’s shortlived comeback and he attacked the part the way a starved man attacks a buffet. Creating a character that seemed legitimately feral; crazed, bruised , vicious and hurt. Here it feels like Rourke could barely be bothered to go through the motions of his character’s shtick. The movie turns Marv into Poochie, shoving him into the story at every oppurtunity regardless of whether or not he actually belongs (and making hash of the series’s continuity in the process), trusting that you’ll love him for some reason. They even fucked up the makeup.

But it’s not like the new actors fare much better. Josh Brolin makes a surprisingly terrible replacement for Clive Owen. By the end of the film he’s reduced to slapping on a wig and prosthetics and dressing in Owen’s old costume and it’s legitimately embarrassing.

Eva Green at least looks like she’s in on the joke and having fun, though from my understanding the same basic character was a lot more fun in this year’s 300 Sequel (Green having turned playing vamping succubi for Frank Miller into something of a cottage industry) a fact that makes me very very sad. But like Levitt she’s marooned in a story that was written without care and shot with indifference.

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The Ugly: Look I really don’t want to delve into Frank Miller’s gender politics given that I don’t actually have time to write a book before my deadline. I will only note that given the presence of characters like Martha Washington, Carrie Kelly and Casey McKenna in his early work they’re even more baffling than they initially appear.

It’s not even the “Dame To Kill For” segment that I have a problem with, though it’s the most outwardly misogynistic. Green and Miller are obviously trying to create the Femme Fatale as apex predator. You might not like that, but it’s a story that’s responding to and twisting a tradition in literature and as far as I’m concerned that’s a legitimate thing to do. It gives Green a chance to exercise her love of camp and the few moments where she goes as over the top as possible are some of the few moments where the film actually seems alive. It’s the blasé disinterest in the rest of the cast’s women that I find to be really appalling. If they’re not man eaters, or drunks, then the women of Sin City don’t even get fridges to die in.

As I’ve alluded to, the film looks bad, genuinely cheap. It reuses the same digital sets over and over again. Without the panels of preexisting stories to base its visuals off of, the film lacks the ruthless economy of the first Sin City and shows no interest in developing anything to replace it. The film’s hyper stylized visuals look barely rendered and the one great new image that it manages to come up with, a make up design on Stacey Keach that is delightfully repellent, is utterly wasted, discarded after a single scene.

So there we have it, Sin City A Dame To Kill For, a film that tells ugly, boring, unworthy stories and tells them in an ugly, boring, unworthy fashion. Sadly I had accepted that Miller had lost whatever magic he had years ago, but the films that Rodriguez have made so far this decade baffle me. Planet Terror, Sin City, The El Mariachi Trilogy, Machete. These might not be great films but they’re all Good Times At The Movies. Shot with energy, fun and a palatable glee with what Rodriguez was getting away with. The filmmaker who made the turgid, ugly, mean spirited Machete Kills and A Dame To Kill For bears no resemblance to that one.

As I walked out of a theater, I recalled what Chesterton wrote when critiquing Nietzsche, “Energetic people use energy as means but only very tired people use energy as a reason…for invalids (alone of all people) desire strength.” With all its empty bravado, machismo and violence Miller and Rodriguez have created something that make them look like a fine pair of invalids indeed.

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The Author

Bryce Wilson

Bryce Wilson

Confirmed film geek and literary nerd. Writer for Paracinema and Art Decades Magazine, columnist for the San Luis Obispo New Times and author of Son Of Danse Macabre. Resides in Austin, TX.