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Friday, August 22, 2014

Welcome Back To The Cartoonishly Grim World Of ‘Sin City’ (Movie Review)

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For: 3 1/2 out of 5

Johnny:  Sin City’s where you go in with your eyes open, or you don’t come out at all.

In 2005 I fell in love with Sin City.  While the worst thing that film may have given since us was the directional ambitions of the graphic novel’s creator Frank Miller (see don’t see: The Spirit), it had plenty else to offer.  Director Robert Rodriguez delivered an ambitious and visually stunning adaptation of a few books from the acclaimed graphic novel series, leaving audiences clamoring for more.  It unfortunately took nine years to finally see more from this world, which finds audiences already satisfied with similarly visually striking films since and more or less content with having the one Sin City film behind them.  But now we have a sequel and while there are some issues with the results, for the most part, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a fun ride back through the mean streets of this stylishly gritty town.


What has become most evident is how director Robert Rodriguez seems pretty set on delivering literal adaptations of these books, which is more or less stuck inside the mind of writer Frank Miller.  Miller, who created the original graphic novels back in the early 90s, put together stories that were written in the style of pulpy noir books that play up the idea of antiheroes, femme fatales, gangsters, and other essential character types, while playing into the notion that females are sexual creatures, good or bad, and the men are either easily taken by them, whether they be protectors, suitors, or worst nightmares.  One could see this as commentary as to how these older stories used to be written or taken as style gone overboard, but regardless, viewers have to get on board or go elsewhere in regards to the characters in these Sin City films, as they are pure style over substance, with little regard for what is PC, let alone morality.  

With that in mind, it is the ensemble casts Rodriguez has assembled for these films that certainly add a level of credibility to these movies.  While I am a huge fan of the graphic novels, the separate yarns, as Miller calls them, contained within each film tend to only be as successful as the actors involved.  For A Dame to Kill For, of the four stories it helps that the most successful story is this film’s longest, featuring Josh Brolin’s Dwight McCarthy character (originally played by Clive Owen) and Eva Green’s Ava Lord character, among many others, including a returning Mickey Rourke as the lovable brute Marv.




The reason this story works is pretty simple, it is based on one of Miller’s first Sin City stories and does not stray from the material.  Not that it would hurt this film to make changes from the original source material, but Sin City is seemingly one of the few books/graphic novels that benefits from having such literal adaptations put on screen.  While one of the other four stories is merely a nice opening to the film (taken from the novel Booze, Broads, and Bullets), the others are new stories written (but unpublished in graphic novel form) by Miller in the past few years and do not come off as compelling.  Part of it has to do with the actors involved (Jessica Alba continues to be a weak link in these films) and part of it comes from the basic structure, despite the efforts of the actors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt is good, but saddled with a poorly conceived character).

In the storyline starring Brolin, which also serves as the subtitle for this film, Dwight is a private eye contacted by his former lover (Green), who manipulates him into doing some bad things.  It is a straightforward story assembled from the outtakes of the Bogart movies that were never made, but it is fun.  A lot of this is due to Eva Green, who is at least on par with her role in the other Frank Miller comic-based film from this year, 300: Rise of an Empire.  Green goes literally all out for the part of Ava, which requires plentiful nudity and the attitude of a much naughtier and over-the-top Barbara Stanwyck.  Green’s sultry presence is alluring, sure, but there is a non-subtle level of humor that runs throughout this story and plays very well, which Green is completely game to play into.  The same basically goes for any scene that involves Marv’s character, but you really have to count more on the style of the film to pull the weight for the two other main stories.


While I have no real idea how the film was assembled, when it came time to add completely new stories, the impression I took away involved adding true menace behind one of the main antagonists of this film, Senator Roark (played by a very sinister Powers Boothe).  Due to this, the revenge story starring Jessica Alba’s Nancy character (the stripper who doesn’t strip), is now given more weight because of the actions that take place in the story starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  On the plus side, from an editing perspective, only diehard fans really have to take note of how the timelines of this world functions, but those familiar enough with the film can easily follow along with the story.  Unfortunately, while the intentions are clear, providing us a story with a flawed-from-a-film-perspective character and then leaving us with a final story where we are required to go along with a rough central performance keeps the film from reaching a greater feeling of accomplishment by the time it ends.  As I said before, the ensemble casts in these films are fun to see, but I feel like an ideal version of this film could have focused only on the “A Dame to Kill For” storyline, with merely some bookends to open and close, making the film a tighter experience overall.

I did say this film was more style than substance though, which is true to an extent.  With nearly a decade having passed, there is an obvious level of quality to this production that allows the world of Sin City to look even better than before.  It may be debatable as to whether the original look was more satisfying than it is now, given that a notable level of grit seems to be missing, compared to the cleaner presentation this time around, but the other touches are well-handled.  This includes the well-placed splotches of color amidst this black & white film, the handling of digital environments, and the use of 3D, which is a pretty terrific way to experience this world (Rodriguez has been messing with this format since before Avatar and I can only assume the next Machete movie, Machete in Space, will go this route as well).


Questioning where Robert Rodriquez wants to go from here is another story.  While I would be happy to eventually see all of the original Sin City books turned into films, perhaps someone else could take the reins, while Rodriguez takes time to change things up.  I once knew the director as a man who makes both adult-skewing entertainment (From Dusk Til Dawn, Desperado) and kid-friendly films (the Spy Kids franchise).  Now, if anything, every Rodriguez film seems to be moving closer and closer the kid-friendly stuff with all of his films.  Make no mistake, Sin City and Machete Kills are hard R-rated features, but for reasons regarding the cartoonish violence mostly, give or take the ample…ahem, boobage on display.  Nothing in the worlds of these films adds up to anything resembling reality, given the weightless mayhem that takes place, which unfortunately takes away from the impact that this film could have, compared to the first where the lead characters (on the protagonist’s side) all at least seemed a bit more committed to their roles.  This is not a bad thing, but compared to his pal Quentin Tarantino or one of his personal film heroes John Carpenter, Rodriguez seems pretty content to flirt with bolder ideas and themes, but stick with what has been working for him.

The first Sin City was a total jolt of electricity as far as bold and visually unique films went.  It had little to say thematically, but packed a big punch as far as delivering a stylish comic book experience that was the most refreshingly different take on this sort of film since Dick Tracy.  ‘A Dame to Kill For’ offers more of the same, complete with another ensemble cast (the cast members mentioned are also joined by Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, and more), but does not amount to much more than what was accomplished the first time around.  If you dig the style of these films, than there is certainly a lot more of that here, but little is done to really evolve this series in a significant way and the new story lines are not particularly great.  Step down this gritty and pulpy alley if you’d like, but Sin City’s streets have little more to offer than freshly paved roads.

[Note: I am very aware that Frank Miller is credited as co-director for this film, but knowing exactly what he contributed is something I would gladly like to hear about.]

Dwight:  Never lose control.  Never let the monster out.


Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS4.
He also co-hosts a podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com

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