I didn’t get to see the original Sin City in theaters, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it beginning to end–but I know of its painstaking stylization, its grotesque violence, its gruesomely tragic characters. I liked it. But when the sequel was announced, and delayed and delayed, finally being pushed back from last October to last Friday, one might reasonably have assumed the worst. It proceeded to flop horribly, opening in 8th place (the original opened at 1st), and received mixed-to-negative reviews. And there’s a reason for that: it’s not a very good film. There are many reasons why it’s not a very good film, but most fundamental is this: very few of the people involved seemed to believe in what they were doing. I’m not even sure if Miller and Rodriguez did.
Again we have multiple stories, here a mix of two vintage Sin City tales and two new ones:
- Just Another Saturday Night: Marv (Mickey Rourke) comes to and finds himself surrounded by carnage. He can’t remember how he got there, and so gradually pieces together what happened: he came across some collegiates setting winos on fire, and gave chase; in typical Marv fashion, he dispatched them all. One of them called him “Bernini Boy” based on his leather trenchcoat, and he realizes he can’t remember where he got the coat.
- The Long Bad Night: Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) arrives in Sin City and goes to a bar where he wins big at the slot machines before using his winnings to buy into a poker game with the demonic Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), who effectively runs the city. He beats Roark and is told to get out of town, but instead takes his “good luck charm” Marcie (Julia Garner) out on the town; when he drops her off, Senator Roark and his goons capture him and beat him up, breaking his “game hand” and kneecapping him, as Roark reveals he knows of the connection between Johnny and himself; Johnny is his illegitimate son. Johnny is left in the gutter, but he is not about to let Roark win that easily.
- A Dame to Kill For: Private investigator Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) is contacted by his ex-lover Ava Lord (Eva Green) who married a wealthy man but who now claims her life is in danger and that Dwight is the one who can save her. Dwight is initially reluctant, but she has a powerful hold on him, and he decides to help her–but with her husband’s henchman and Ava’s bodyguard-chaffeur Manute (Dennis Haysbert) in the way, he won’t be able to do it alone. Luckily, Marv is there to lend a hand, but it turns out that Ava is only using Dwight to her own ends. But as devious as she is, Dwight is not easily defeated–especially not when he has all the prostitutes of Old Town behind him.
- Nancy’s Last Dance: After her protector Hartigan (Bruce Willis) killed himself to save her from Roark’s wrath (she had been the object of his evil son’s lust, and Hartigan killed him), Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) has been struggling; while she is a popular nightclub dancer, she is haunted by the memory of Hartigan and, unable to bring herself to kill Roark, has taken to drinking heavily. Finally, she cuts her flowing hair, scars up her face, and enlists Marv’s help in finally destroying Roark.
Okay, where to start?
The misogyny? The all-important lack of belief that I mentioned in the preamble? The fact that this film has no real reason to exist, which its failure reinforces? The racism? The way it wastes a good cast, giving its best characters and performances relatively little mileage while giving abundant screentime to poorly-written and performed characters? Or focus on the good first? Nah.
I guess we’ll start with the misogyny (*tags “tw misogyny”*).
Basically every female character in the film is either an actual prostitute, or is selling herself in other ways. Ava Lord, first and foremost, uses her body as commerce, seducing poor dumb (God, is he ever) Dwight so he’ll kill her husband, allowing her to inherit all his money. When he inconveniently survives her attempt on his life (because she’s a laughably bad shot, as bad as the Nazi officer in The Monuments Men who couldn’t hit Cate Blanchett for shit, or as bad as Faye Dunaway in Chinatown–that last scene is so badly staged), she seduces police detective Mort (Christopher Meloni), but he does nothing of consequence other than flip out and kill his partner (Jeremy Piven) before killing himself; she then partners up with mob boss Wallenquist (Stacy Keach–and I’m going to devote some time to talking about this motherfucker), and he decides to summon an agent of his; Dwight, altered by plastic surgery, takes the place of this agent (whatever happens to the agent is never revealed), and blah blah blah, Ava kills Manute for some reason, then tells Dwight he’s now evil and they should go off together and be evil together (or something like that), and he shoots her.
And the film fucks this up. In the original story, Ava tries to claim that Manute had her under mind control the whole time, and that she’s innocent, but Dwight finally snaps out of the hold she has on him and kills her. But here, it seems like he’s seduced once again and kills her more as a reflex than as an actual conscious act. Yeah, Dwight in this film is kind of a dipshit. Granted, the mind control thing would’ve been ridiculous (and wouldn’t have worked for reasons which I’ll get to in a bit), but it would have been better than this.
But yeah, Ava is the ne plus ultra of gold-diggers, has basically no redeeming qualities, and likes to be naked (and Eva Green, who likes being naked onscreen, does not hesitate to bare all). And then there are the prostitutes of Old Town, who basically have their own autonomous enclave in Sin City (or Basin City, as it’s actually called, but whatever). Perhaps Miller considers this empowerment. But they’re still dressed at all times to sate a specific brand of male fetishism. And they serve no narrative purpose beyond helping Dwight–Gail (Rosario Dawson) flat-out says she’s helping him out of her unrequited love for him.
Even the good-natured Marcie appears to be a prostitute; she and Johnny don’t sleep together, but she’s just a human object, a living good-luck charm who ends up butchered. Why? Well, Senator Roark is an asshole. You need more of a reason than that? Tough shit. And there’ s Sally (Juno Temple, who really needs a new agent), who shows up just to sleep with Joey (Ray Liotta), who intends to kill her rather than let her prove his infidelity and lose everything to his wife in a divorce settlement. Dwight saves her (he’s spying on Joey on his wife’s behalf), and drops her off in Old Town, yada yada. She too serves no purpose other than to be ogled and threatened.
I guess Bertha (Lady Gaga), a waitress who gives Johnny a dollar when he most needs it, is all right. She’s in the film for less than a minute. And of course, there’s Nancy–an exotic dancer, which ensures we have lengthy sequences of her writhing on stage. Granted, a lot of the blame in her case falls at Jessica Alba’s feet, but we’ll get to that later.
How about the racism, while we’re at it? How about the fact that Manute calls Ava “Goddess”, and isn’t joking? Dennis Haysbert manages to make it sound less insane than it reads, but come the fuck on. And let’s not forget Miho (Jamie Chung), who never says a word, just commits flawless carnage with her katanas, and whose kills, I swear, are occasionally accompanied by gongs. Fucking gongs. I’m not sure who thought that was okay. The racism isn’t as overwhelming as the misogyny, but let’s not give it a pass.
The acting, a lot of the time, doesn’t help. Brolin and Green in particular bear mentioning. Both are good actors. But Brolin, for all his skills, isn’t really someone who looks or acts like a lovestruck sap. So when Dwight falls for Ava’s manipulations (which are ridiculously blatant), Brolin just comes off as a massive idiot. Whether due to bad directing, bad writing, or bad acting, he never shows the vulnerability that would make Dwight’s manipulability believable, and just seems like a stolid dunce. And let me tell you, it’s hard to feel bad for a stolid dunce, especially in a context this ridiculous.
Green at least plays Ava for some camp value, but that actually works against the material; she’s so obviously evil, so transparently melodramatic, that anyone fooled by her deserves what they get. The use of color in this mostly black-and-white film is carefully selected, and Ava’s eyes are glitteringly green and her lips almost bloody red; she’s a vamp, no question about it, but you don’t believe her for a second. Green can play ambiguity and vulnerability quite well–witness her work as the tragic Vesper in Casino Royale–but here, she’s all campy villainy, and makes the story even more absurd than it was to begin with.
Ah, and let’s not forget Jessica Alba. She’s not on Brolin or Green’s level, but she’s not untalented; I’ve heard good things about her work in The Killer Inside Me, and in other roles she at least has a natural likability. But here, she’s either completely out of her depth or just wasn’t really trying, because her portrayal of Nancy’s drunken despair is mostly limited to looking sad, swigging from bottles, and sweeping shit off tables. Then, there’s her dramatic haircut (which…it doesn’t make her look different enough to justify making a big deal out of it) and self-scarring, which…I don’t know what that really adds to anything, other than upping the ugliness quotient of the material, which was already considerable.
Alba just doesn’t make any of it work at all, though I sympathize with her attempts to make the half-assed final beat work. She’s seemingly at Roark’s mercy (somehow, in her moment of supreme vengeance, she can’t fight through her pain long enough to grab her gun), while Roark turns away to have a drink, before being startled by Hartigan’s ghost (yes, that happens), allowing Nancy to finally get up, shoot Roark in the shoulder, and say “This is for John Hartigan…fucker” before the shot and cut to black.
“This is John Hartigan…fucker”? That’s really the best they could do? And they don’t even show Roark die?! The main villain of the whole franchise, a loathsome SOB who has earned a villain’s death 10 times over, and you don’t seem him die? In Sin City? That’s just not acceptable in any way, shape, or form. I felt cheated. I don’t know who wouldn’t.
(And before I forget, I just have to mention Stacy Keach’s presence as Wallenquist. What…what the fuck were they going for? He looks like something out of Dick Tracy. It’s so ridiculous.)
Actually, aside from those three, the performances are mostly okay. Powers Boothe easily comes off best; he gets a lot more screentime here than in the first film, and makes the most of it. He’s a truly reprehensible bastard, a man who will kill his own son (he kills Johnny after Johnny beats him a second time), who will keep a man alive just to pin his son’s crimes on him, who will step away for a drink while letting a woman he’s shot suffer on the floor–and that’s just the beginning. But Boothe plays the evil Senator just right; he’s got a bit of camp to him, but he’s still a scary motherfucker, with that low, gravelly, perfectly sinister voice and leering eyes–much more effective, really, than the grotesquely bloated character of the comics.
It’s really a shame the movie as a whole is so flawed, because it makes it hard to truly champion Boothe’s work. But trust me when I say he does a hell of a job. He almost makes the film worth seeing just to witness his evilness. Not quite, but if you happen to get caught watching it, relish him; he shows just how good an actor he can be.
Dennis Haysbert (who I’m really hoping has a good role in Dear White People) is also quite good; taking over for the late Michael Clarke Duncan, he gives the imposing Manute a certain dry wit that’s very enjoyable; he winks at the viewer just enough to defuse some of the silliness of the character without making the whole thing seem like even more of an empty charade. I wish he had more to do, but I honestly liked Manute more than anyone else in the film, and would have happy to see him win.
He has a gold eye, after all. That’s pretty cool.
The phrase “I wish they had more to do” applies to a lot of the cast, actually. There’s Christopher Lloyd as a heroin-addicted slum doctor who takes Johnny’s last $40 and takes the bullet out of his leg; needing his broken hand fixed, Johnny gives him his shoes, and the good doctor sets his fingers and splints them with popsicle sticks (which he thoughtfully licks clean beforehand). It’s a fun, grotesque cameo from Lloyd. He should’ve done Dwight’s plastic surgery. Just to have more of him.
Meloni’s obsessed Mort and Piven’s pragmatic Bob are good, too; they’re gross–Mort in his lustful obsession and Bob in his misogynist nihilism–but they at least invest the material with a little life. Hell, a little more Gaga wouldn’t have hurt; I’m not going to make a case for her as an actress, but she seemed more down-to-earth than most of the players, and had the right personality for a greasy-spoon waitress. So there’s that. As for Temple and Dawson, it really hurts to see them continually stuck with terrible roles, Dawson especially. That’s all I’ll say on that point.
Then of course, there’s Gordon-Levitt and Rourke. I will say this, “The Long Bad Night” is overall pretty good. It’s not great (the ending is a little gratuitously bleak), but it’s probably the best of the stories. And Gordon-Levitt does his part. He pulls off the sort of tragic-yet-slick ne’er-do-well quality that Johnny should embody, and you care about him, at least as much as you care about anyone in this film.
Rourke doesn’t get to play the tragic side of Marv like he did in the first film, and his face seems smoother than before, but he’s still Marv, the heart and soul of Sin City, a human force of nature (I think Miller described him as “Conan in a trench coat”) with a heart of gold. One of the film’s best moments comes after the failed attack on the Lord mansion, as he spirits Dwight to the safety of Old Town–but in the back of a Tucker car, all the while amiably chatting about how he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to drive such a rare vehicle (he even references the film Tucker: The Man and His Dream). Oh, and having beaten Manute within an inch of his life, he’s taken and is wearing Manute’s hat. It’s funny. Not hysterically so, but likably so. In the midst of the most objectionable part of the film, it’s a welcome respite. In the prologue and final story, he does pretty well too–he’s a bull in a china shop, and he knows it. Rourke is just ideally cast, and knows it, and plays the role just right. It’s hard to lavish praise on him at length, but he gives a fine performance.
The visual style of the film isn’t as distinctive as it was 9 years ago, but there are still good images here and there. None that really stand out in the memory, but the film looks good when it isn’t being too ridiculous or nasty. Everything just looks a little too smooth and neat. It lacks true grittiness. At one point, Miller and Rodriguez actually give themselves cameos as characters in a film Nancy is watching. They should not have been so satisfied with themselves. Not with what they turned out.
If it seems like I’m actually giving A Dame to Kill For a rather high score, consider the film’s virtues–the good performances, the fact that some of the stories are, in fact, decent–and consider that ** is still not a good rating. Why, I’d be giving it an F if my points aligned with the normal scholastic scale. (I don’t do letter grades, but I’d give this a C- or a D+ if it came down to it.) Either way, it’s not strongly recommended.