Scrubbed clean of the wicked charm and humor of the original, A Dame to Kill For trades its wonderfully pulp roots for weak pop nihilism.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Release date: August 22, 2014 (USA)
Director: Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez
Stars: Jessica Alba, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Josh Brolin, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Eva Green
Running time: 102 minutes
MPAA rating: R
Powers Boothe, I think, was the only one who got Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. As Roark, the malevolent city boss and state senator representing the corrupt Basin City, Boothe oozes just the right amount of gleeful malevolence that this kind of film needs, a villain you want to see taken down with prejudice before the credits roll. In a movie that’s one part cartoon, one part homage to dime store detective novels and smoky noir films, that’s a hard balance to strike – but Boothe manages it, playing just this side of camp (it’s like an outsized version of his Cy Tolliver).
Why, then, does the rest of the movie feel like a chore? Ten years after the first Sin City, co-directors Robert Rodriguez have made a movie that feels like a slavish imitation of the original, with a cast of characters that feels buried deep down, clinically-depressed and stripped of any sort of the crazy vibrancy of that first film.
This time out, we get a triptych of criss-crossing stories that serve as both a prequel and sequel to the first film. The structure lets us check in on the sad fate of Nancy (Jessica Alba) from the first film, while taking us into Dwight’s past before he got the new face (hence Josh Brolin replacing Clive Owen); a third story introduces Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an almost magically-skilled card sharp who ends up on Roark’s bad side.
Of these, Johnny’s story works the best, pairing Levitt’s easy charisma against Boothe’s calcified evil. You’d think there were actually two characters with stakes, desires, and interests in this vignette. But there’s not much to redeem Alba’s story – the actress is too sweet to play the special kind of darkness wrapped around Nancy; Brolin, meanwhile is a capable actor who’s done good and mean in the past, but doesn’t seem to know where to direct Dwight’s anger in his segments.
The latter two actors seems to be struggling with the green screen and the labored artificiality of Miller’s dialog, which is so much richer when read that heard. Watchmen suffered a similar problem, saddling its characters with Alan Moore’s beautifully verbose dialog composed for the page, rendered comical and overdone when played on the screen. You can see Brolin trying to make Dwight a human in a movie that should probably be populated by living, murderous cartoons. The whole movie drags to a halt because of it.
And when did Robert Rodriguez become a visually boring filmmaker? The man behind El Mariachi, From Dusk Till Dawn, and hell, even the first Spy Kids would boldly throw the wildest, weirdest images up on screen with an eye for sharp, deliberate compositions. Things happened and you felt their impact because the camera was dynamic, part of the action. With A Dame to Kill For, it’s mostly inert, angled just so to get the scene, make sure that the characters are centered, and still a direct lift from the comic panels. That may have worked for the more action-heavy first Sin City, but the many dialog scenes in A Dame to Kill For aren’t done any favors by being treated like stiff reenactments of the comics.
If Rodriguez and Miller really wanted to replicate the experience the comics on the screen, they succeeded: it’s inert, limited, and by the end, I’d forgotten most of it.