Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) / Drama-Fantasy

MPAA Rated: R for strong brutal stylized violence throughout, sexual content, nudity, and brief drug use
Running Time: 102 min.

Cast: Josh Brolin, Mickey Rourke, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Powers Boothe, Eva Green, Jessica Alba, Dennis Haysbert, Bruce Willis, Juno Temple, Rosario Dawson, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Jaime King, Jamie Chung
Small role: Ray Liotta, Lady Gaga, Christopher Lloyd, Stacy Keach, Alexa PenaVega, Marton Csokas
Director: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller
Screenplay: Frank Miller (based on his comics)
Review published August 24, 2014

What was once a groundbreaking visual experiment to try to recreate on the silver screen the look and feel of a ultra-stylized, hard-boiled Frank Miller comic is now just more of the same.  In the intervening years, we've seen Miller's 300 get adapted in an equally green-screened style similar to that comic (including its sequel), and Miller himself tried his hand at directing a movie in the Sin City style in his god-awful superhero throwback, The Spirit. But that probably won't displease fans of Miller and his "Sin City" mini-series of comic books from enjoying this return to the dark and violent world of noir that he created in the 1990s, especially as it adds a couple of never-before-seen tales to the mix.

Again, we have a mostly starkly shaded black-&-white world of sleaze and vice, with occasional eye-popping elements of color, with characters who are gross exaggerations of noir archetypes in their personalities and physical abilities.  It still favors style over substance to the utmost degree, but the style is still very impressive, even if we've seen it before.  I suppose the one key difference is that it is shot for 3D (no, not post-converted), which makes those pop-out visuals really stand out.

There are three story threads to A Dame to Kill For (or four, if you count one minor one with Marv (Rourke, Immortals), including the adaptation of the mini-series from which it draws its title.  In this prequel tale, we see Josh Brolin (Guardians of the Galaxy, Oldboy) take over a role that was played by Clive Owen in the original, as Dwight. Dwight falls for femme fatale Ava Lord (Green, 300: Rise of an Empire), who is stuck in an abusive marriage with her domineering husband (Csokas, The Amazing Spider-Man 2).

A large side story involves Johnny (Gordon-Levitt, The Wind Rises), an arrogant gambler who can seemingly never lose, who walks into the poker room run by the powerful and corrupt Senator Roark (Boothe, MacGruber), only to find that you can win the poker hand, but lose your physical hand in the process if you show up the most powerful figure in Basin City. And Roark better watch out because the third story sees stripper Nancy Callahan (Alba, Machete Kills) out for revenge on him for the murder of her beloved John Hartigan (Willis, Red 2), who she continues to see in either spirit or hallucination form.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For doesn't crackle with the same excitement as the original Sin City, but that's likely the result of it coming out so much later, when everyone but the most stalwart of fans have given up caring about a follow-up.  Had this come out in 2007, the same year as 300, we'd have a bit more excitement, even if it is more of the same by its very nature.  Though they are obviously cut from the same cloth, A Dame to Kill For is a step down, not just because seeing the same style is increasingly stale to the viewer, but because it is a bit more uneven in its approach. 

That it's redundant of the first film is something to be expected from just about any sequel; that it's redundant even within itself is not.  How many times will we see someone fall out of a window?  How many different characters will injure an eye?  How many different characters will use a crossbow as a weapon?  How many people will we see behind the wheel of a convertible driving down the cliffside?  How many faces are going to be cut up with scabs and scars?

Much of the reason for the redundancy is slavish adherence to the source material from Frank Miller, who gets a co-director credit this time out (director Rodriguez (Machete, Grindhouse) lobbied furiously for this to occur on the first film).  "Sin City", the comic, despite its old Hollywood influence, was never crafted to be a movie, telling several separate tales of life in Basin City for a variety of archetypical characters.  He could afford to be redundant in themes because the readers for any given piece might be entirely different than the others, and readers only got chunks of it at a time, waiting months for the entire story to play out. 

Here, the stories are all mashed together, and in seeing them play out all at once, we can see that Miller tends to explore many of the same story beats over and over again.  Perhaps it's a weakness of Miller, whose creative skills have been criticized for going steadily downhill in quality over the past decade, or perhaps it is a signature style.  Whatever the case, as a movie, it doesn't work quite the same way since what happens to one character happened to another fifteen minutes before, then another 20 minutes after.  When it feels like a story is going in circles, a growing tedium sets in. Despite clocking in a good 15 minutes shorter than its predecessor, it does feel more on the long side.

While I think that film critics can be a bit harsh to seeing a property they saw a decade before and grow restless when something new isn't being presented, I do think that the reputation of A Dame to Kill For will increase somewhat as time goes on, and fresh people who've never seen either film watch them in close succession, and not take into account the length of span between chapters.  It really does capture the Miller comics quite well, and it does fit in closely, despite some actor changes, with the spirit of the original film. 

The thrill of seeing a wholly unique style in cinema may be forever gone, but to those who actually like this story and this style, you're getting your money's worth.  A Dame to Kill For may be flawed, and it might feel like we're getting Sin City's leftovers, but it still holds a certain fascination for a genre exploration that is rather unique in the world of comic-based films.  This prequel/sequel isn't worth killing for, but if you're a huge fan of the first chapter, it is still worth a look to catch up with Frank Miller's crazy, Eisner-award winning world of wacked-out characters.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo