I have been mulling over my experience watching this summer’s Sin City: A Dame To Kill For in my head for the past week and a half. I didn’t feel comfortable writing a review until now because, until very recently, I wasn’t sure whether I liked the movie or not. Although my viewing was marred by a disconnect towards what was happening onscreen, and a simple lack of care I had toward any of the characters, I didn’t leave the theatre angry; disappointed, yes, but not angry. After giving it much thought, I realized that every ounce of confusion or uncertainty I had towards the new film was partnered with a desire to compare it to the original; almost as if A Dame To Kill For was simply part of a larger puzzle, and not its own independent film. Judging it accurately could simply not be done in my mind without the inevitable comparisons to the original.
Which presented me with a challenge, given that I have not seen the original Sin City since I was in middle school.
Most of the memories I have for the 2005 movie were vague, but for the most part complimentary. I remember how distinct the cinematography was at the time I saw it; I remembered that Clive Owen’s Dwight McCarthy was my favorite character; I remembered the brutality of such scenes as Mickey Rourke dismembering Elijah Wood’s serial killer Kevin, and Bruce Willis flat-out ripping off That Yellow Bastard’s genitals. After a quick re-watch a few nights ago, the movie has held up for the most part. All the positive aspects that I remember from those late-night HBO viewings during my teenage years were still there; Owen was still my favorite, the cinematography was still great, the genital scene was still so absurdly brutal that I just had to admire it. But all the flaws that had slipped from the edges of my memory came rushing back, and are now much more obvious to me as an adult. Benicio del Toro gives a much more irritating performance than I remember; Michael Madsen now seems so much more obviously inebriated; Jessica Alba’s performance as Nancy, in particular, is now ridiculously flat and distracting to me. Sin City is still a very fun and visually daring comic book movie, but it is not the balls-to-the-wall piece of awesome that middle school me loved so much. It’s very much like Donnie Darko or Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation; a good movie, but the kind that loses much of the appeal after you grow older and experience more of what cinema has to offer.
Because of that, I can honestly say that the biggest crime co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have committed with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is the nine year gap between it and the first movie. A Dame to Kill For is honestly not a steep fall off a precipice from the quality of the original, and in many ways it’s very similar. The problem is that a nine year wait was not worth the end result of simply another movie like the first one; a near decade of absence should warrant something different, a movie that respects the original’s aesthetic but goes into new directions with it. It is my honest opinion that A Dame to Kill For would have been just as enthusiastically received as the original if it were released in 2007, when the first movie was still fresh in the public’s mind and before Miller killed the visual aesthetic with his uninspired version of The Spirit.
That said, the sequel does have some distinct flaws that the original does not. As good as Josh Brolin is as the pre-surgery Dwight McCarthy, the film creates a major continuity flaw by not bringing back Clive Owen for the post-surgery scenes, instead opting to put a black wig and bad facial prosthetics on Brolin; as a result, I would not be surprised if a casual fan unfamiliar with the history of McCarthy were to get confused and possibly not pick up on the fact that Brolin and Owen were playing the same character. The visual style, which seemed so fresh and innovative in 2005, has also grown stale after its use in The Spirit to the point where it feels less like an aesthetic and more like a gimmick because Rodriguez and Miller are not doing anything new or interesting with it. The best story in this one is The Long Bad Night, following Joseph Gordon-Levitt as cocky gambler Johnny, but even that one manages to end in spectacularly anti-climactic fashion that elicits nothing from the audience but a feeble “So what?”
The titular story of A Dame to Kill For should have been far better than it was. They had excellent source material in what was one of the most stand-out tales in the comics, a perfect protagonist in Dwight McCarthy, and what was easily the best performance in the entire film from Eva Green. But despite the cool, Mirrenesque demeanor that Green brought to the character of Ava Lord, the story instead feels lifeless and devoid of any real passion or personality. Nancy’s Last Dance is even worse, anchored entirely off an almost fascinatingly detached and soulless performance by Jessica Alba, whose attempts to be dark, brooding, and intimidating fail spectacularly. What every one of the stories in this movie truly do wrong, however, is their unfortunate misuse of the Marv character. Clearly responding to Marv’s status as a fan favorite, the directors shoved him clumsily into all but one story, to the point where he seems like a lazy addition to the film as opposed to being an organic part of the world.
In the end, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For comes off as nothing more than an unnecessary film, an afterthought to the first one. It does not come off as the same work of passion and ambition that the original undoubtedly was, but instead every uninspired frame feels like Rodriguez and Miller conveying to the audience, “Shit, we forgot to make a sequel to that one.” Had this film been released in 2007, I am sure it would have felt like an organic continuation of the original. But because Sin City is so far back in our collective memory, the sequel is instead a feeble reminder that these characters exist, and nothing more. It is not insufferable like Miller’s The Spirit, it is not visually ugly like Rodriguez’s Machete Kills, and it is not obnoxious like his Spy Kids sequels. It is just utterly, forgettably unremarkable.