For Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Blake and Dom decided to split hairs and have a little discussion. See, at CoS Film, difference of opinion is not only welcome, but encouraged. No, there will be no stylized sword fights. But know that Dom thought 2005’s Sin City was crackerjack noir with a new aesthetic language. Blake thought Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s grim and grisly comic book movie was showing off for teenagers. The suspense is killing them!
Blake Goble: Yeah, 2005’s Sin City was not my cup of hard-boiled coffee in a dark alley. Meant as a hyper-visualized and postmodern take on crime thrills, Rodriguez and Miller’s adaptation was a nasty thing. Its look was always about style, never purpose, and its violence gruesome and sadistic. Yes, it’s supposed to be a literal spin on comics and what they’re capable of presenting, but the whole thing came off as amateur hour film kid stuff, showing off the latest techniques in After Effects.
Dominick Suzanne-Mayer: The shade, though. But I can see where you’re coming from, even if our mileage turned out to wildly vary. The film is pure pulp stylization porn, all pitch-black darks, milk-white bloodshed, and Elijah Wood being turned into a living stump through the miracles of modern technology. To me, it worked. Part of it was that I was 16 at the time of the original film’s release and in the throes of a massive, massive Tarantino/Rodriguez phase. But I’ve gone back to it over the years, and it holds up. For better or worse, it feels like a fully realized immersion in Frank Miller’s brain for two hours.
BG: A Dame to Kill For is more of the same. Rodriguez and Miller are at it again, with black-and-white beheadings, gunplay, big breasts, and bad behavior. Pitched as the twisted spirit of noir, this sequel is even further removed from their original ambitions. We’ve got a sequel that’s complacent with its own existence. What’s a strong story or well-developed thug when you’ve got the basic stuff – mayhem porn.
DSM: Here’s where I’ll start disagreeing. I wouldn’t say it’s more of the same, because I really liked Sin City and hardly cared for A Dame to Kill For. I think what’s different this time around is that the original film felt genuinely transgressive. It was perverse, and the thematic ugliness made for an interesting contrast with the gorgeous visual palette. Here, I feel like the series took a hard turn into the territory of being the sort of chest-beating, obnoxious screed about the nobility of grizzled, brutish men that Miller’s been often criticized for over the past few years. The pitch-black humor of the first film ends up getting replaced with endless swaths of narration, occasionally interrupted by appealing breasts.
BG: Oh dear lord, the narration. You’re streets ahead on that one. Miller really thought Josh Brolin speaking in gravel and comparing a kick in the balls to an atomic bomb would sound gruff, or maybe campy, or, well, how are we supposed to take it? It’s more laughable than that unfinished Hemingway manuscript where the man described what it feels like to hear lions roar and how those feelings start in the scrotum. Everyone takes the material so damn seriously that there’s no room for levity or wit. Joseph Gordon-Levitt being the hot stuff that he is shows up as a cocky, young gambler trying to make a statement, and he left his average charms at home. Jessica Alba reprises Nancy, her tragic stripper from the first film, with the same level of competence she had the first time: none. She should not be playing a boozy, bitter woman seeking revenge. Alba is dire to the point of accidental yuks as she brandishes a handgun and a vodka bottle. Mickey Rourke turned his Marv character into Homer Simpson somehow. Let’s not even get into the ever-fading Bruce Willis giving another one of his halfhearted cameos.
I’ll say this, Eva Green is the very best thing about this sequel. It’s like she was made for pulp and camp. As Ava, the pathologically lying, sexually manipulative, pretty much always naked wife of a millionaire, she’s crazy good.
DSM: Agreed. Couple this with 300: Rise of an Empire from earlier this year, and you can give Green a ton of credit for elevating poorly made Miller-affiliated properties by her very presence. I wasn’t a huge fan of how her arc plays out, considering that its central thesis seems to be that she’s such an incurable harlot that even the noblest cops suddenly turn into frothing madmen at the very sight of her. I’m talking in particular about Christopher Meloni’s too-brief appearance, where he goes through his own narrative paces at preposterous speeds. Unlike the first film, which at its best works as an examination of the endless cycle of urban violence (at least as filtered through Miller’s skewed worldview), nothing in A Dame to Kill For resonates on that larger level. It’s all the style, none of the heft. Basically, it’s a bloodier, less fun version of The Spirit.
BG: We’re totally in agreement on A Dame to Kill For, then. I’ll give you the fact that the first Sin City felt fresh and innovative in its aesthetic, even if I don’t know if Rodriguez totally had control of his visuals. Yet the movie stood out. The problem with that is it stood out so much, in its very literal way, that you can’t help but shrug when something so specific is on screen again. It’s the second verse and a little bit worse.
Where’s the standout yellow monster or repulsiveness of the first movie? Sin City had enough nerve to at least disgust me with genital ripping and other such unique and unseemly sights. A Dame to Kill For just annoys me. Slaughter. Wince. Repeat.
One quick thought, and tell me if you think this is a flimsy argument. Rodriguez shoots, edits, writes, directs, composes, and makes effects for all his movies now. Is that because he is a cinematic workman, or, is he unable to get people on board with his idiosyncratic vision? That notion immediately blows up in my face when looking at the casts he accumulates, but still, the guy seems pretty unwilling to branch out from his little genre assignments these days.
DSM: It’s a little bit of both, I’d argue. I think Rodriguez is one of the hardest-working filmmakers going. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all his movies are good (even though, and shame me for this, but I didn’t completely hate Machete Kills as most did), but he’s ridiculously prolific and has afforded himself the luxury of realizing his films in precisely the way he sets out to make them. It’s completely unfiltered creativity, which is a double-edged sword when you’re a filmmaker with the excessive tendencies of Rodriguez. We’ve recently seen this with Kevin Smith as well.
Having said that, I don’t totally fault Rodriguez for this one. He’s a stylist above all, and it’s Miller who has the sole writing credit on the film. As a result, and again in the same vein as The Spirit, A Dame to Kill For ends up concerning a lot of gorgeous cinematography and little substance. That first one has considerable value; for the grievances we’ve both outlined with the film, it’s still a visual feast for sure. It’s just difficult to enjoy a film that’s not only poorly paced (Jessica Alba’s highly touted arc in the film only constitutes its final 20 minutes or so and feels like an afterthought all the while), but the worst thing a Sin City movie can be: boring.
BG: The visuals still don’t impress me. And this is the same beef I had with the first movie. Not to go all Denby and diss digital, but where’s the craftsmanship that comes with knowing how to perfectly light something? The Third Man and The Set-Up and Out of the Past were impressive because they knew where and how to place a camera for maximum effect. Every production still of A Dame to Kill For is an actor sitting with a single prop in a green room, waiting for Miller and Rodriguez to paint everything later. It just seems too easy.
Regardless, you say boring, I say annoying. Either way, this film’s just not that hot.
More like A Lame to Kill For, right?
… I’ll see myself out.
DSM: I came close to not publishing that on principle, but I’ll let it stand so that you’ll have to account for it to the Internet. Anyway, I agree. For a movie with so much frontal nudity and eye-based violence, A Dame to Kill For is just a tedious exercise in latter-day Frank Miller ranting. I know it’s easy to lean on his real-life persona, but at the same time, it’s so thoroughly saturated his work of late that I’d argue you can’t really have one without the other. The nihilism is still there, but the worldview doesn’t seem to be. He’s the angry old man of the cinema, shaking his fist at clouds.
A quick final note, to close: since I cut my film-loving teeth on a lot of Miramax releases in the ’90s, I was both heartened to see that logo once more in a theater and saddened that sooner or later it’ll be gone for good.