In 2005, Robert Rodriguez adapted the comic book Sin City into a film with help from its creator Frank Miller who co-directed it. Convincing the veteran comic book writer/artist to come on board was a smart move on the filmmaker’s part as it assured that Miller’s luridly violent noir tales would be faithfully translated. This was achieved through a then-groundbreaking green screen environment that allowed Rodriguez to place his actors in Miller’s stylish world with a striking look comprised of black and white with strategic splashes of color. This innovative approach attracted a star-studded cast that included Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro among others. The final result dazzled audiences and was a commercial success.
A sequel seemed inevitable, but instead Rodriguez went on to team up with Quentin Tarantino on the box office misfire that was the Grindhouse double bill (2007) while Miller applied the Sin City aesthetic to a disastrous adaptation of Will Eisner’s comic book The Spirit (2008). Over the years, talk of a sequel surfaced occasionally with the likes of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie being mentioned in potential leading roles. Nine long years later and the stars (and money) aligned for Rodriguez and Miller to reunite with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014). The film promptly tanked at the box office and received mixed to negative reviews. What happened? Did Miller and Rodriguez wait too long? A green screen-heavy film is no longer a novelty. Two cast members with characters in the film had passed away and some roles have been recast. The general consensus seems to be that they waited too long to make a sequel and interest in the film had waned.
Some might complain that A Dame to Kill For is just more of the same. As a big fan of the first film this is not necessarily a bad thing. After seeing Sin City, I wanted to see more of Miller’s stories brought to life. In addition to adapting A Dame to Kill For and the short story “Just Another Saturday Night” from the Booze, Broads, & Bullets collection, Miller created two new stories specifically for the film – “The Long Bad Night” and “Nancy’s Last Dance.” By doing this, he has given the fans a real treat by offering two stories where the outcome is not known and introducing new characters into this universe.
In “Just Another Saturday Night,” Marv (Rourke) wakes up amidst a car accident unable to remember how he got there. He proceeds to recall what happened via flashback on a snowy Saturday night. This segment is a nice way to reacquaint us to the brutal yet darkly humorous world of Sin City. “The Long Bad Night” introduces us to Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a confident gambler who decides to take on Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), the most powerful man in the city, in a high-stakes poker game and gets more than he bargained for. It’s a lot of fun to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt square off against Powers Boothe, the former playing a young upstart and the latter an evil, influential man.
The centerpiece of the film is “A Dame to Kill For,” which features Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) as a private investigator taking photographs of a businessman (Ray Liotta) cheating on his wife with a hooker (Juno Temple). When the man tries to kill her, Dwight intervenes. He has a tortured past, which involves keeping his homicidal impulses in check. Afterwards, Dwight gets a call from an ex-lover by the name of Ava Lord (Eva Green), a beautiful woman married to a very rich man. She’s in some kind of trouble and he finds himself drawn into her tangled web yet again. He soon runs afoul of her imposing bodyguard Manute (Dennis Haysbert) who proceeds to work him over. Realizing that he’s out of his depth and bent on rescuing Ava, Dwight enlists Marv’s help, which only complicates things in typical noir fashion.
In “Nancy’s Last Dance,” Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) is an exotic dancer still haunted by the death of her lover John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) and is obsessed with avenging his death by killing Roark, the man responsible for it. Over time, she’s counseled/haunted by Hartigan’s ghost, which drives her increasingly crazy.
Actors Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Eva Green slip seamlessly into the Sin City world. It helps that they have that old school noir look, especially Brolin with his chiseled tough guy features and gravelly voice – perfect for his character’s voiceover narration. In no time, the actor makes you forget that he plays a character once portrayed by Clive Owen. Gordon-Levitt is excellent as the young newcomer with a secret and manages to elicit sympathy for his ultimately doomed character. Green plays Sin City’s reigning femme fatale. The stunning actress has an alluring, exotic look and can turn a vulnerability on and off at will all the while playing a cold-hearted manipulator of men. Green gives key line deliveries the right venomous spin that makes Ava Lord a fearsome figure in this world.
It’s great to see Mickey Rourke return to the role of Marv, a character he inhabits so well. He brings a world-weary charm and a much-needed dose of dark humor to the film. Powers Boothe, who only had a minor role in the first film, gets a much meatier part in A Dame to Kill For and it’s a lot of fun to see him sink his teeth into such a deliciously evil character. Unfortunately, Jessica Alba is once again miscast as Nancy, the stripper with a heart of gold. While she looks the part, the actress doesn’t have the chops to pull off the tricky evolution of character that goes from sweet girl traumatized by the death of loved one to a revenge-obsessed vigilante. Miller’s stylized dialogue needs to be delivered a certain way. Some actors can pull it off and others can’t. Alba falls into the latter category and it becomes painfully obvious in her segment. Even her dancing is unconvincing.
While it no longer has the technological novelty factor as an incentive (shooting it in 3D really didn’t help either), there is certainly no other film out there that looks like Sin City. There have been a few imitators since, most notably The Spirit and Max Payne (2008), but the look of the film is so specific to its universe that few have dared to emulate it. Rodriguez has said that with the first Sin City he held back somewhat stylistically for fear that it would be too much for audiences. Emboldened by its commercial success, he took the look further and made it even more faithful to Miller’s comic book. So, there are things like Ava being rendered in black and white accentuated with red lips and green eyes, and visual flourishes like Marv recounting past exploits while a tiny car chase revolves around him, or the moody storm clouds that hang heavy in the cemetery where Nancy visits Hartigan’s grave. And why not? It’s not like the characters or the world they inhabit are based on any kind of reality. They exist in a hyper-stylized neo-noir universe drenched in atmosphere.
The dialogue in A Dame to Kill For is riddled with clichés and the characters are drawn from archaic stereotypes, but that’s the point. Miller is paying homage to the Mickey Spillane crimes stories he clearly idolizes. The film immerses itself in noir clichés and wears them proudly like a badge of honor, refusing to make any excuses for trading in them. There’s really nothing more to it than that, which may make the film seem instantly forgettable, but Rodriguez’s film never aspires to be art as it is unrepentedly sexual and violent with very few if any redeeming characters. The first Sin City film came out at the right time and tapped into popular culture zeitgeist. A Dame to Kill For is not so lucky, but you have to give Miller and Rodriguez credit for sticking to their guns and delivering another faithful adaptation of the comic book, which may only appeal to fans and probably won’t convert the uninitiated.