Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bleached Blood – Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba in Sin City A Dame to Kill For

A vacation in Sin City is a mixed blessing. Robert Rodriguez’s original 2005 film of the same name was a bold and vivid nightmare, offering pulpy cliché in a hyper-stylized noir setting. It was a fascinating place to visit, but you certainly wouldn’t want to live there. Nine long years later, the local attractions that used to seem so quaint have begun to grate on the senses. I was happy to return to the monochrome alleyways of the grittiest city in cinema, but the second time around, it’s really just not the same. A Dame To Kill For, based on the lesser-known (and little-loved) leftovers in the Sin City graphic novel canon, again weaves together several short stories all set in the same grimy, rain-slashed streets. It’s a scattershot experience, with less structure and purpose than the original film, and it makes me wonder why this sequel even exists after so long a sojourn in the sane, healthy world of real life.

First, the good: A Dame To Kill For makes the best use of 3D I’ve seen in a long while. Creator Frank Miller’s comic book aesthetic seems perfectly suited to 3D, the way disparate elements in the frame will pop out, enhanced by the selective use of colour in a mostly black-and-white world. It’s a visually vibrant film, and the years have been generous in the advancement of digital technology. Actors in garish makeup and prosthetics have seldom looked so good against a green screen. It’s just too bad that they don’t have much of interest to do. A Dame To Kill For is a perfect example of style over substance. Not only was the distinct visual presentation of Sin City a fresh experience, but it was used as a tool to enhance the tone and setting, and to reinforce the dramatic beats of the noir stories being played out. Here the visuals aren't connected to the action in any meaningful way, except to bring us back into the world of Sin City – one we've unfortunately already visited. All the slick black-and-white style can't disguise the lack of an interesting story, or the absence of characters likeable enough to root for despite their immoral, often psychotic behaviour (a prime example being Mickey Rourke's Marv, who carried the first film with a magnetic performance that, even if it wasn't sympathetic, was at least engaging and memorable – and who is used here as a human wrecking ball, with no clear motivation or stake in the action beyond "Why not, I ain't got nothin' better to do tonight.").

Lots of people in Sin City died needlessly, but here, many people die meaninglessly. This is an important distinction: every act of violence in Sin City was a form of punctuation; a coda to a character moment, or even just a way to paint the lurid picture that is the city itself. In A Dame To Kill For, there’s plenty of violence that has no purpose whatsoever, except to try and keep your attention – and even then, it doesn’t always succeed. My focus began to wane about three quarters of the way in, when the appeal of a new vacation in this vibrant and compelling cinematic setting had been washed away in a wave of confusing character motivation and mindless action.

Eva Green & Josh Brolin in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Rodriguez brings in some new talent to freshen the experience (and to replace both Brittany Murphy and Michael Clarke Duncan, who have died in the years since the last film). Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a fine job in an original vignette about a cocky cardshark with a lucky coin who wins at poker against the wrong people. I enjoyed that his character is intentionally undermined: he seems far too fey to be the grizzled gambler we’re supposed to think he is, and in the end it turns out that, well, that’s exactly the case. Jessica Alba returns as Nancy, the most famous stripper who never takes off her clothes, this time in a rushed addendum to her storyline with Bruce Willis from last time around. Josh Brolin is well-cast as the featureless, personality-free Dwight (replacing the much more motivated Clive Owen in the 2005 original), as forgettable as his character’s constantly-changing face.

Thank god for Eva Green, though. She has a wondrous capacity for total commitment to a role, throwing herself into her performances with an almost reckless gusto. She's beautifully melodramatic as the titular Dame (named Ava, somewhat confusingly) and while her being fully naked for the vast majority of her screen time did little to prop up the film's already-questionable credibility, I'm certainly not going to complain about it. She is a fearless actress in more ways than one, willing to "bare all" for the sake of a captivating performance (see: her bravura turn in Showtime's Penny Dreadful), and it's to her credit as a craftswoman that she sinks her teeth into sympathetic and abhorrent characters alike. Ava, though, is a hackneyed vamp and a thoroughly disgusting human being, who crows self-righteously that after her husband's death she will never again have to rely on any man, before turning around and relying on the next man that comes along. Much has been made of Frank Miller's misogynistic literary tendencies, and A Dame To Kill For hardly helps his case – there isn't a female character present who isn't a whore, a stripper, a murderer, or all three. Although I suppose you could call it a step forward in equality, the way Miller casts the town’s distaff inhabitants in just as loathsome a light as its male population. Nobody is innocent in Sin City – which I suppose is the point.

I don’t think I’ll be alone in questioning why Rodriguez and Miller felt that a nine-year hiatus from this violent cinematic setting would be acceptable. A sequel might have played well if it had been released one or two years after the original, but A Dame To Kill For shows that the City hasn’t aged well. Nine years really should have produced more than a slight improvement in visual fidelity. While this sequel can’t hold a candle to its predecessor, it’s still a very unique place to visit – but for my next trip, I’m definitely going somewhere else.

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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