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While it’s easy to write off Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City as style over substance, there’s more to the movie than just a dynamic visual sense. Not only was the film inventive in its green screen technology and captivatingly beautiful to watch, but there was a strong balance of grittiness with tongue-in-cheek comedy. Poking fun at the mechanics of the film noir genre while also trying to play itself semi-straight.
It was a hard balance, but through transferring the comic as literally as possible (so much so that Miller earned himself a co-directing credit) it was able to be bleak and pulpy, brooding yet clever. In short, it had its flaws: the writing was pretty wonky, the violence was rather tedious, it was overlong and some performances were much better than others. However, it delivered on its promise to be a fun, exhilarating and memorable piece of popcorn entertainment.
While the prospects of coming back to Basin City were fun in theory, the prospect of a sequel or prequel was a bit old hat when the movie was beginning to reach its tenth birthday. Not only have movies grown in terms of their digital background technology, but the filmmakers had hinted at a sequel for so many years that fans had come to disbelieve anything would ever be made.
After constant delays and endless build-up, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For comes a full nine years after its original. While there are certainly some beautifully perverse shots, and it's fun to see some of these characters and backdrops again, everything about this return feels off-key, and—quite frankly—a little dated.
More of a prequel than a direct sequel, A Dame to Kill For—like the first one—intersperses three story lines throughout the film. This time, the story focuses on a younger Dwight (Josh Brolin, taking over for Clive Owen), who finds himself in a deadly love spell with a former flame, Ava (Eva Green)—who is the titular “dame.”
The second storyline centers on a new character, Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a slick card player who finds himself manning up to Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), whom he shares a more personal relationship with than most. Then, finally, Nancy (Jessica Alba) is seen following the events of the first movie, as she begins a murderous rampage towards Roark following the death of her beloved Hartigan (Bruce Willis), who follows her in ghost form throughout the movie.
What made the first movie so enjoyable was its gleefully perverse sensibilities of providing a bloody over-the-top spoof on the genre that it was also tipping its hat to. In many ways, the movie was essentially a successful version of Sucker Punch, combining everything that a 14-year-old boy would love with the jovial fun of a comic book. But what made it spark was, not only did it look like the comic, but it felt like it too. For as nice as this sequel can look at times, this movie rarely—if ever—captures the flimsy fun of the original.
Where the original was more pulpy and self-aware, this one is more hollow and self-serious. While the first tried to play into a younger fantasy mindset, this movie comes across as the same 14-year-old trying to make a serious film noir. Because its backgrounds are more digitally realized this time, the environments rarely match or feel connected to the actors like they did in the first movie. The original movie, to this day still, looks great and modern. Whereas this movie looks cheap and dated.
Also not helping is the fact that the actors don’t all seem to be on the same page. While Levitt is enjoyable and makes the character about as realistic as he possibly can, Brolin comes across as too straight-faced and brooding. He plays this material as straight as he would be if he were in The Third Man, which makes the more tepid storytelling all the more apparent.
Falling somewhere in the middle is Green, who’s well cast but misdirected. Despite her delightfully tongue-in-cheek performances in Dark Shadows and this year’s 300: Rise of an Empire, her character here comes across as too insecure. She doesn’t seem to know whether to play it straight or goofy, making her character too erratic to sell. She looks as lovely as ever, but without a strong understanding of her motivations, Green can only come across as a pretty face.
Alba’s performance here is downright terrible. She conveys all the emotions of someone trying to win an Oscar, but can’t for the life of her make it work. Also not faring too well here are typically reliable actors Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven or Julia Garner, who all come across as either confused or miscalculated.
There are other likable, but brief, performances though. Stacy Keach (wielded in some fairly good practical make-up that looks like David Cronenberg’s interpretation of Jabba the Hut) and Christopher Lloyd are fun in their brief appearances, but they are so minuscule that they barely make an impression. Also, filling in for the late Michael Clarke Duncan, Dennis “Allstate Guy” Haysbert does a respectable enough job as Manute. Even Lady Gaga is surprisingly not awful here.
But the only actor who truly seems to understand what movie he’s in is Boothe, who is able to play his part with just the right level of straight-faced villainy goofiness that the movie needed in more heavy doses. Like Mel Gibson in The Expendables 3, he is able to transcend his material, but he can only do so much. He can’t carry the movie; he can just make it as good as he can.
Where the original was innovative and humorous, A Dame to Kill For is fairly pretentious and dull. Like its muted color grading, this sequel/prequel fizzles where the first film sizzled, and it makes for a disappointingly tiresome experience. The dialogue has a little more pop this time around, and you can make your movie as slick and shiny as you want, Miller and Rodriguez. But at the end of the day, if it doesn’t click, then all you have is a bunch of nice images emotionlessly streamlined together. Although, to be honest, even the cinematography is quite lacking this time around.
Image courtesy of Roger Wong/INFphoto.com