Halfway into Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Joseph Gordon-Levitt – battered and bloodied – ascends a fire escape, consumed by trepidation. We know this because he continues to grimly intone his fears on the narration track, and because there’s a woman waiting for him in the hotel room at the top of the fire escape. From my vantage point in the audience, I understood that there were two and only two possibilities – the woman would be dead, or she would be naked. And that’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For in a nutshell.
Much like the first Sin City film from a decade prior, A Dame to Kill For is an anthology of three short stories from the pen of Frank Miller. Gordon-Levitt plays Johnny, a smooth, self-assured gambler who attends a high-stakes poker game with ulterior motives … and a plan so poorly conceived it’s hard to understand how he’s so self-assured. Jessica Alba returns as perpetually-clothed stripper Nancy Callahan resolved to avenge the death of Hartigan (Bruce Willis, dangerously close to being typecast as a morose ghost) from the first film (though I wouldn’t recommend you think too hard about how her storyline – intended to be sequel and prequel alike – fits in with that film’s continuity). It’s custom-made to carefully balance the ratio of Jessica Alba badassery to Jessica Alba poledancing.
The film takes its title from its most substantial story, and the only one to be adapted directly from Miller’s original comics (the other stories were written specifically for the film). Here a grisly gumshoe (Josh Brolin) is drawn into the web of an ex-girlfriend (Eva Green) who turns out to be evil when she tricks him into killing her husband because, y’know, “dame to kill for.” I’m aware this plot summary is perfunctory and clumsy; I’m just trying to emulate director Robert Rodriguez’s approach, which swallows any sense of tension or narrative momentum with rushed pacing. The slender “twists” within this storyline are addressed and resolved so briefly that you’re barely aware that they’re supposed to be surprising.
Eva Green’s performance as that evil ex-girlfriend, Ava Lord, is consistent with her function within 300: Rise of an Empire – chew the scenery while frequently removing her clothes. I’ve seen a number of critics praise her as the best thing about the film – not necessarily glowing praise, mind – but I wasn’t fond of her work here, no matter how great she looks naked. Green’s too committed to selling the oversized theatricality of each moment as an arch archetype, losing any sense of emotional continuity within her character.
That’s not entirely Green’s fault, admittedly. The entire film is consumed by an emphasis on individual moments of “cool” rather than the integrity of the complete work. This is consistently demonstrated by Rodriguez’s storyboarding choices (though Miller, again credited as co-director – and appearing in a brief cameo – surely takes some responsibility), which continue to fetishise Miller’s framing, trying desperately to emulate the form of a comic in the cinematic medium. Frequently throughout the film we cut from a wide to a tight long shot (or vice versa); it might reflect the comic book aesthetic but it squanders the possibilities of filming; a dolly or zoom here or there would’ve helped give A Dame to Kill For feel less visually constrained. Sin City managed to make this kind of stylistic appropriation work, conjuring memorable expressionist images such as Bruce Willis imprisoned in the void of his prison cell – outside of a shot of Alba writhing in her bed, the sequel can’t manage to repeat that achievement.
I haven’t spoken about the thick vein of misogyny and fascism pulsing through the picture yet, and I’m not planning on dwelling on the subject. The first Sin City had much the same problems, but slipped through the critical consciousness without copping much condemnation for Miller’s questionable philosophy. Context is important, admittedly; that film arrived shortly after the demise of Tarantino-mimicry, where an ironically exaggerated take on stylised violence was exactly what the doctor ordered. Perhaps we overestimated that irony, reading too much into hyper-stylised noir approach (less inspired by film noir than Saturday morning cartoons’ take on the genre) and missing that the film’s core was fundamentally hollow.
That argument’s not entirely convincing. I’m resisting the current trend to re-evaluate the first film in light of its sequel’s failure (Miller’s descent in right-wing extremism is surely a factor, too). Perhaps people read too much into Sin City, but I’m not convinced it was an awful film.
Its sequel is an awful film, though. Certainly, you could peel back the unpleasant surface of A Dame to Kill For in the search of thematic import: arguing, perhaps, that Gordon-Levitt’s storyline is about the impossibility of confronting entrenched corruption, or that Green’s storyline deconstructs the femme fatale figure as misogynistic – riven between a suffering siren or a murderous matriarch – rather than advocating that representation. But however much squinting you do to view the film through this lens doesn’t change the fact that it’s simply an underwhelming film: unpleasant and, most egregiously, boring.
The failure of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For can’t be laid at the feet of poor directorial choices or Green’s imperious overacting, but the writing. The exaggerated reality of Sin City – where every man is a badass and every woman is either a whore, a victim, or both – is too limiting for diverse stories to be told. There may be eight million stories in the naked city, but it seems there are only a couple worth telling in Sin City.