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Non-Review Review: Sin City – A Dame to Kill For

It is very hard to get the same trick to work twice.

When it arrived in cinemas, Sin City was a visceral punch to the gut. It was powerful and shocking, and utterly unlike anything that had ever been seen before. It had its fair share of problems, mostly inherited from Frank Miller’s source material, but it managed the rare treat of being incredibly raw and stylishly slick at the same time. Even years later, the images and characters from Sin City linger in the popular consciousness.

It would be too much to expect the same from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, but the movie lacks the youthful energy that made the original such a classic and the memorable images that imprinted themselves on the collective imagination. Sin City arrived with a reckless irreverence and a whole new bag of tricks. Ultimately, A Dame to Kill For feels like an old dog, and you know what they say about those.

Green-eyed monster?

Green-eyed monster?

As with the original Sin City, the audience is presented with a variety of overlapping stories – each offering a different glimpse of life inside “Basin City.” Characters tend to overlap between stories, as they are drawn into one another’s orbits. Consequences from one story spill over into the next. Some stories line up thematically or casually. Some serve as prequels to what we saw in Sin City, while others offer closure as they tidy away narrative loose ends.

It’s only natural that Marv should feature as a recurring character in all three stories. In many respects, Sin City was a redemption story for veteran character actor Mickey Rourke. If one were mapping the actor’s career trajectory, Sin City was positioned right at the start of his creative rebirth. The road towards his Oscar nomination for The Wrestler began with his portrayal of Marv. Marv was the grizzled, violent, anti-social protagonist of the original film, and Rourke breathed life into him.

Scarred tissue?

Scarred tissue?

As played by Rourke, Marv seemed almost tragic. Talking in Frank Miller’s hard-boiled clichés and lumbering through the black-and-white frames like a living cartoon, Rourke found Marv’s humanity – turning him into the heart and soul of Sin City. Marv may not have been a nice guy, but it was easy to side with him as the city itself seemed to press down against him. With all that in mind, it’s no wonder that Mickey Rourke gets title billing on A Dame To Kill For, gets the intro to himself and appears in all three segments.

However, this is not 2005. Mickey Rourke is not where he once was. Whereas Rourke found the humanity in a human punching bag at rock bottom in Sin City, here he feels like a star doing a favour. Sin City was a career reinvention, A Dame to Kill For is just another lap around the block. Rourke doesn’t seem to be trying this time around, instead basking in the role. His narration seems more indifferent than world-weary, mumbling through lines he utter with more conviction last time around.

He only gambles with his life...

He only gambles with his life…

The opening sequence consciously evokes Marv’s story from the original Sin City. Once again, our anti-hero finds himself in a life-or-death situation with no memory of how he got there. “When you got a condition, it’s bad to forget your medicine,” Marv reflected in the original, sounding like a broken man. He repeats the sentiment here, sounding more like he’s offering advice for dealing with a stomach ulcer.

Whereas the original story featured Marv out of element with the entirety of the world crashing down against him, his appearances in A Dame to Kill For treat him like visiting royalty. Whereas Marv had once been on the down-and-out, now he is cock of the walk. His very gestures seem to bend the city to his will, as he seems to command an off-screen army. It is perhaps too much to read this as a commentary on the state of Rourke’s career, but the opening sequence does point to the biggest problem with A Dame to Kill For.

Time for a face-off?

Time for a face-off?

The original Sin City had to work hard to win the audience over. Most film fans had never seen anything like it. It was a hard sell, and the movie worked for it. A Dame to Kill For doesn’t have that same uphill battle. It doesn’t have to sell itself. Indeed, A Dame to Kill For feels downright indulgent in places – particularly in the eponymous story of a woman who seems to have the whole town dancing to her beat.

Eva Green is suitable sensuous as femme fatale, and Josh Brolin looks and sounds great in black-and-white, but there’s a sense that the story could easily have trimmed a lot of fat. There’s an entire subplot featuring Christopher Meloni and Jeremy Piven that goes nowhere and does nothing but reinforce what we already know. It is great to have Meloni and Piven in the film, but their scenes could easily be cut without losing anything of substance. In fact, the movie might actually be the stronger for it.

Things are rather black-and-white here...

Things are rather black-and-white here…

Similarly, there’s a strange emphasis on continuity and connections in A Dame to Kill For. It seems like most of the two stories framing the movie exist to reference events from the first film – answering questions that nobody asked. Does anybody care how Manute lost his eye? As fun as it is to see Josh Brolin transforming into Clive Owen, did we really need to see Dwight again? Is Nancy Callaghan’s story crying out for a resolution.

Basin City is a large sprawling metropolis with a diverse social structure. We are taken from the slums of Old Town to the upper-crust mansions of Sacred Oaks. Although the film is far too stylised to ever offer a glimpse of what a regular day must like for anybody in the city, there have to be more stories to tell. Sin City felt like a rich and vibrant world, populated with characters who had interesting stories to tell. A Dame to Kill For has decided that we dropped in on most of the interesting people in town the first time around.

Not quite a smashing success...

Not quite a smashing success…

All of the stories in A Dame to Kill For define themselves against the original in some way, shape or form. Often, this serves as an excuse for the film to avoid developing any of the characters, as if assuming we care by default. At best, it is mildly irritating – giving the impression that A Dame to Kill For is more interested in minor details of a film released almost a decade ago than it is in its own stories. At worst, it can be downright confusing – do casual movie goers remember the non-Marv sections of Sin City that well?

It’s no coincidence that the best of the stories in A Dame to Kill For is the one least connected to what came before – the one that feels it has to introduce new characters and make us care for them. The Long Bad Night is the story of a compulsive gambler who decides to test his luck in Basin City. “Sin City is the kind of city where you go in with your eyes open,” he muses, “or you don’t come out at all.” The result is a whistler-stop tour through the city, one that underlines the cynical noir themes holding the movie together.

Lucky escape?

Lucky escape?

The Long Bad Night works a lot better than A Dame to Kill For or Nancy’s Last Dance because it doesn’t assume that the audience is invested from the outset. It is driven by impulses that seem larger than simply tying into the first film. It manages to capture – fleetingly – the magic of the original Sin City by offering us a glimpse of the city that will chew people up and spit them right back out. It also has a hell of an ending, albeit one seriously undercut by the decision to position it leading into Nancy’s Last Dance.

Rodriguez and Miller’s direction lacks the verve and excitement that it had the first time around. There’s nothing here that feels quite as uncanny as Elijah Wood’s silent cannibalistic serial killer, nor as memorable as Marv’s long redemptive walk in the rain in the middle of the original film. The images here don’t have the same force or energy that they had in the original, the black-and-white-with-splashes-of-colour approach seems a little faded this time around.

Strange bedfellows...

Strange bedfellows…

A Dame to Kill For is a misfire, and a disappointing one. It turns out that you may be lucky to get out of Sin City alive, but it’s not necessarily a good idea to head back in for more.

2 Responses

  1. I was a big fan of the original graphic novel, maybe I will forget what you say when watching the movie…but I know, things are different, and I agree with your opinion: why do they make this film now, so tied to the original, since 10 years have passed?
    Simone

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