Until 2005’s Sin City, no film looked exactly like a comic book. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, who created the original graphic novel, Sin City borrowed frames directly from the source material, and would abstract the lines and color so it looked like it was a film version of Miller’s page. It was also a fun story, albeit a stupid one, filled with violence, beautiful scantily-clad women, and hard-boiled dialogue. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For continues that tradition, only the stories are cobbled together clumsily, and the characters are either vulgar to a fault, or dumb. If every sequel must justify its existence somehow, then this one never quite makes its case.
There are three main stories, although the majority of screen time belongs to Dwight (Josh Brolin now, Clive Owen in the original film). Dwight gets a visit from Ava (Eva Green), who seduces and tricks him into doing something he comes to regret. Marvin (Mickey Rourke) wisely tells Dwight that Ava is the titular dame, which is another way of saying she’s a femme fatale. The only trouble is that Miller’s screenplay never develops an agenda for Ava, except that she’s evil and likes to seduce men (more on that later).
The other storyline involves Marvin and Nancy (Jessica Alba), a gold-hearted stripper who’s literally haunted by the ghost of Hartigan (Bruce Willis). She wants to avenge Hartigan by killing Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). Then there’s Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hothead poker player who pushes his luck by taking Roark’s money. Rodriguez cuts between these threads with a fade-to-black, and spends the most time on Dwight.
The clearest influence for Miller and Rodriguez is film noir, a genre of film that hit its peak popularity around the forties and fifties, although it’s never quiet fallen out of fashion (lest we forget True Detective). Noir was a chance for mature filmmakers to explore the darker aspects of human nature, and see what happens ordinary people face actual evil, or institutions far more powerful than themselves. Thematic richness has zero interest for Miller and Rodriguez. They borrow noir style, without any depth or curiosity about human behavior. Many lines in the film are unintentionally funny, while others are downright cringe-worthy. This is the most true with Green’s character: she is naked for a lot of her screen time – to the point where her body loses its allure – and Ava is nothing more than a man-hating monster. Misandry is a terrible way to create a one-dimensional character, but Miller and Rodriguez do not seem to care because, you know, boobs.
Miller and Rodriguez handle genre in a superficial way, so at least the look of Sin City is as striking as ever. Rodriguez creates one beautiful composition after another, and his use of digitally-rendered shadow is enough to have us forget every moment was achieved during post-production. There are several shots where Green swims in a pool, and it’s as if her body floats through a milky, ethereal plane. The violence is similarly stylized, full of severed limbs and heads, although the film never generates suspense since no hero is much more than a placeholder for suffering.
In the weakest storyline, Gordon-Levitt’s Johnny is all posturing and no motivation (the poker games, all five-card draw, are downright idiotic). The irony is that Johnny’s story has the best scene: Christopher Lloyd comes out of retirement, I guess, to play a quack of the doctor, and he’s one of the few who gets the intentional laugh. But for every flourish of gallows humor, there’s another line from a live-action cartoon who acts like a badass as a way to indulge Miller’s twisted sense of “cool.”
Since there is no character development in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Miller and Rodriguez take the superficial route in the most literal way. Characters “change,” or get more hardened and badass, after they experience literal facial scarring. Whether it’s Jessica Alba or Brolin, no one learns anything until they have the chance to say, “You should see the other guy.” This visual metaphor highlights how profoundly thoughtless this sequel is: it lacks the curiosity to consider basic human impulses, and instead is a style exercise for its own sake. The ultimate genre poseur, Frank Miller would rather get his jollies through this work, which demonstrates an ugly contempt for his audience.