Nine years after the first Sin City materialized at the multiplex like a breath of unexpected fresh air, what reasons do directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have for finally returning to their smoke-filled, black-and-white den of iniquity? If I wanted to pithily sum up what this follow-up brings to the table, I could do it in just two words: Eva Green. Her sexy, scheming Ava Lord is a truly hypnotic creation, and alone worth delving back into Rodriguez and Miller’s noir-drenched world. Excitingly, though, there’s more to Sin City: A Dame To Kill For than just the devious femme fatale of its title.
Like the first Sin City, this sequel is made up of a loosely connected series of stories, but there are really two main threads to keep track of. In one, the villainous Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) is twice targeted by revenge – first by cocky gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and second by Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), still stripping but burning on the inside with the desire to avenge the death of her protector John Hartigan (Bruce Willis, who drifts in now and again as a specter watching over Nancy from beyond the grave). These two tales essentially serve as bookends to the title story, in which a pre-Sin City Dwight (Josh Brolin) becomes snared in a web of murder and deceit woven by his sensual, sadistic ex Ava.
The structure feels a little more unstable this time around than it did in the first film, mostly because Johnny’s story, written specifically for the film, is noticeably weaker than the surrounding material. Although the back-and-forths between Gordon-Levitt and Boothe are enjoyably tense, the story ends with more of a whimper than a bang, and it being bisected by the other narratives further serves to sap its strength.
In other places, though, A Dame to Kill For visibly crackles with dark energy. The dialogue is punchy and nostalgic (“Her kiss has a promise of paradise,” Dwight growls, all grizzled machismo, of Ava), while the centerpiece tale soars on Green’s fearless performance. With Ava, the actress joins the ranks of the best femme fatales, bringing such a sinuous grace and snakelike charm to her death-dealing dame that it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when we learn bodyguard Manute (Dennis Haysbert) calls her “the goddess.” It’s almost a problem that Green plays Ava so perfectly – you may find yourself hoping she slithers her way out of her admittedly well-deserved comeuppance.
Brolin is also terrific as Dwight, bringing a gruff charisma that, when combined with his chiseled jawline and startling ability to inject genuine emotion into the most theatrical of lines, makes him the perfect protagonist for a pulpy, stylish actioner like this. His presence is such that Clive Owen’s absence (a necessity of the storyline) is never felt for a second.
Speaking of absences, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For arrives without Michael Clarke Duncan or Brittany Murphy, both of whom passed away in the nine years between the films. Their obvious absences are a little harder to get by – Haysbert kicks ass during this sequel’s many thrilling action sequences, but he can’t quite match Clarke Duncan’s booming presence, while Rodriguez and Miller wisely avoided attempting to have any actress fill Murphy’s shoes.
Returning from Sin City, though, is Mickey Rourke as the indomitable Marv. It becomes clear in A Dame to Kill For that Rourke is the MVP of this seedy universe – his noninvolvement would have been a fatal blow for the follow-up, so kudos to Rodriguez and Miller for bringing him back from the electric chair. A force of nature as always, the swaggering brute hardly appears to have aged a day, and his badass antics throughout this sequel – which is all set before Sin City‘s “The Hard Goodbye” and finds Marv trading blows with both Manute and Roark’s army in two different stories – make for some smart, darkly humorous action sequences as ridiculously over-the-top as they are marvelous to watch.
And rounding out the cast, Alba takes Nancy’s transformation from comely dancer into vengeful assassin in stride. Whereas Green relishes Ava’s cold-blooded remove, Alba pushes herself dramatically to embody a woman on a knife’s edge, so blinded by her pain that she’s in danger of losing her very sanity. The actress nails every nuance, making it a great deal of fun to watch Nancy go a little crazy in her quest for revenge on Roark.
In terms of acting, A Dame to Kill For more than matches its predecessor. But no one’s going to see the movie just for that. A Dame to Kill For isn’t for everyone – it’s intended for those who ventured into Rodriguez and Miller’s brilliantly pulpy world all those years ago and left hungry for more, a fact which the directors don’t even try to match. The first Sin City presented a fully realized film noir landscape, a brazenly distinctive playing field for the most uncompromising, gritty and hard-boiled of characters. Luckily, Rodriguez and Miller’s knack for visual inventiveness never fails them on A Dame to Kill For, with arterial blood sprays being rendered in striking white and bold swaths of colors (especially red and yellow) accentuating both the cartoonish savagery of the violence and the centerfold eroticism of the women.
That the directors’ gorgeous aesthetic has held up so well is both elating and somewhat surprising, given the wealth of green-screen-heavy productions for which Sin City paved the way. Not that I’m complaining. A Dame to Kill For is exactly what fans of Rodriguez and Miller’s original film had prayed for – a perfect opportunity to again lose themselves in a euphoric fog of carnage and carnal appetites. No, it won’t make waves in the same manner as its predecessor, and no, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For isn’t flawless. Johnny’s story doesn’t pack much of a punch, and the first film’s wilder elements (like Elijah Wood’s mute cannibal) are missed. But to nitpick is almost to miss the point. Rodriguez and Miller have once more succeeded in bringing Sin City to vivid life, and it’s just as seductive as ever. Indulge yourself – this is one sublimely sinful pleasure.