“Walk down the right back alley in Sin City and you can find anything” as the hulking Marv once stated in the first published Sin City yarn. And he’s damn right.
The world of Sin City as first imagined by a once-great Frank Miller is a vast opportunity of expansion and storytelling even in its completely contained setting and atmosphere. After the comic book film franchising and branding that Marvel and DC are going through right now, Sin City‘s brilliance is that it doesn’t have to try. We know this city and we know everything is going on around another.
It is the essential comic book universe.
Which is why it hurts me so much that Sin City: A Dame to Kill For was such a catastrophic mess in itself that within only two movies, the Sin City series has become one of cinema’s largest continuity errors (save for the X-Men films, but they had seven movies to fuck themselves up at least.) And that’s the biggest bother.
The film opens with the short yarn “Just Another Saturday Night”, an fun little ditty starring Marv as he recollects his already-begun massacre of ghoulish college kids who are burning winos around. It was a tale I really enjoyed reading as a middle-school adolescent (expect my review of Sin City to be filled with my praises of Marv as one of my favorite fictional characters), but as I watch it now in the aftermath of Frank Miller’s notorious blog-rants to liberals and the “Occupy” movement, lines like “Please don’t kill me I have a trust fund” (which is not in the comics) feel more like gleeful hate fantasy. Still that doesn’t deviate from the fact that this segment of the film feels like riding a bike back into an old neighborhood, as much as it hurts the film, this story really eases back into the idea that nothing’s changed over the nine years it took to get this movie made and it gets away with it very well. It is the moment that works best in this film and that after the end of the yarn… it’s all downhill from here.
The next moment in the film is a muddled tie-in between the two original stories of the film – “Nancy’s Last Dance” and “The Long Bad Night”. “The Long Bad Night” in all honestly may not mesh very well into the Sin City universe – it is a relatively tame story compared to all the cannibalism and rape that happens in the universe and it is in fact perhaps the most predictable story produced in a storytelling series based on genre tropes and stereotypes, so that says a lot – but it honestly feels like noir more than most of the published stories. It has a hero with a fatal flaw, a vice, it is has underbelly atmosphere and it has so much more. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, after the last few years in his career must’ve been exhausting with him trying to make bland or underdeveloped roles like The Dark Knight Rises or Inception and barely passing, really feels right at home in neo-noir territory, a smirking smiling wiseboy who does sleight-of-hand casually and whose boredom with impeccable luck at the beginning of the yarn is really charming. Hearing him scream in pain still makes me laugh my ass off. I don’t know why, maybe I’m just fucked up.
Powers Boothe (easily the best thing about the movie) is the goddamn Devil, I swear. In general, Boothe has kind of always unnerved me with the characters I’ve seen him in from Tombstone to Deadwood to Guyana Tragedy (I’ve never watched an interview with the man so as not to break the illusion). Even when I recognized his voice in The Avengers as one of Nick Fury’s bosses, I mentally shat my pants. That makes him perfect for the most powerful man in Basin City, a man who knows how to use his status to bring about fear and more fear. He chews the scenery with the amount of evil he displays in this particular film (he was certainly more reserved in the first Sin City), but in a heightened environment like that, you’d definitely feel like you’re slowing the fucking film down if you didn’t act anything more than heightened and that’s kind of how all the actors in The Long Bad Night go ahead with themselves and they do it tremendously. Gordon-Levitt’s cocky and cocked anti-hero, Boothe’s a fucking overwhelming terror, Julia Garner as a airy waitress who is just fine against Gordon-Levitt’s arm who definitely would break the Bechdal Test, Christopher Lloyd as a jittery and loudly sleazy underground doctor who I swear is meant to be a parody of his most famous role in Back to the Future. Despite an extremely anti-climactic ending and a static arc, it works feels somewhat like Ace in the Hole and is the most engaging of the full stories in this.
“Nancy’s Last Dance” on the other fucking hand is without a doubt godalmightyawful trainwreck. Way worse than “Family Values”, horrifically worse than stuff like Holy Terror and All-Star Batman and Robin. At least those stories came from, y’know, a sense of fucking feeling, something real inside of Frank Miller, however ugly his cynicism and hatred is. “Nancy’s Last Dance” was a bland empty story that attempts to elaborate on a situation we stopped caring about when the real hero finally died. And its emotional turmoil and drama is so hamfisted and unconvincing, if Sin City: A Dame to Kill For ended with a soap opera instead of this story, I honestly would have felt the same fucking way. We got Jessica Alba’s worst performance in a career filled with stinkers and Bruce Willis’ unnecessary spook presence doesn’t really rise above her position either. The two of them are meant to carry this corpse of a storyline and instead they both flail and fumble under the raging mind of 21st Century Miller that really can’t hold onto any real coherent dialogue for his life because of how self-convinced it is that “this rotten town it soils everyone”. Fuck, I can’t even express my total hatred for this story, I’m goddamned pissed. But on the second part of this review – to be Motorbreath‘s first video review if you don’t count my friend candidly recording my reaction to Oscar nominees on my phone… and I don’t – I’ll try a bit harder.
But what of the very namesake of the film “A Dame to Kill For”? How does my favorite Sin City story of all time fare in this particular adaption?
Very boring. I was close to falling asleep halfway through it. It has to be said that, y’know, literary pacing (even a visual literature like comic books) and film pacing does not always accommodate for each other and changes MUST be made if you want to make your adaptation a good movie rather than just a translation (which, honestly, we know that translation is the ONLY point movies like Sin City and Watchmen are made, which is somewhat sad to me). It’s something that keeps me from largely enjoying most of the recent DC animated movies [Batman: Under the Red Hood is somewhat of a treat, but Batman: Year One (based and painstakingly faithful to my all-time favorite work of Frank Miller) feels like a fucking Saturday morning cartoon starring Bryan Cranston].
A Dame to Kill For, like all the other Sin City adaptations, carries with pride the weaknesses of the original story and it definitely hurts it here. But its strengths as a film this time around are not around to keep it afloat. Clive Owen (who is fucking absent from the second half of this after a deliberate tease of something meant to be a treat to fans of the comicsohmyfuckinggodfuckyoustevensoderberghforkeepingcliveoweniwillbreakyourfuckingKNACK!!!! sorry I got carried away…) is not here to salvage what we loved about Dwight McCarthy, and honestly, the point of Dwight is that just as he physically changes in the story, he also changes morally. But Josh Brolin is just dense, caveman-like emotion, without any real anchor to Dwight’s everyman status, followed by whatthefuckisthatshit make-up meant to make him look like Clive Owen and instead resembling neo-noir Recoom from Dragonball Z.
Is that… is that supposed to be Clive Owen?
As for Eva Green, I’m not going to pretend looking at her body (which is out there for 99.9% of her appearance in the movie) is not absolutely pleasant to look at. And I’m especially not going to pretend she is not the best at playing devious trickster woman who has two goals in mind.
But what ruins the momentum of this story (other than her bad American accent which keeps slipping and a very very pointless subplot involving detectives searching for Dwight and a cameo appearance by Stacy Keach as giant German/Sontaran mobster Wallenquist), is how bad she is at playing helpless female. And that’s sort of very important to the story. She has to convince the audience just as much as she convinces Dwight (against his will) that she is in trouble. And she just can’t do that. It hurts the story and had me honestly looking at my watch waiting for the moment to go ahead and move the story onward.
And the story moves ohhhhh sooooo fucking slow. This movie is 20 minutes shorter than its predecessor but holy crap does it feel like 20 years. Well after Green gets comfortably in her own skin, she does not hog all the screentime but has to share it with dead performances from Brolin, Keach (poor Stacy Keach feels fucking restrained behind the heavy heavy heavy ass makeup they must have put him in… it reminds me of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles suit), David Palmer, Jamie Chung, Rosario Dawson, Ray Liotta & really undead performances from the likes of Juno Temple, Christopher Meloni and Jeremy Piven. It’s scary how ALL of these are actors I respect and admire (Brolin is, for the record, one of my favorite actors) and they just don’t seem to care. No one does in the film I think, but none of It just is too much to note that these actors are not in the same room together and especially too much to note that many of them are just doing this for the paycheck. And when she’s on screen… honestly, we’ve seen it before. We know she’s good at this type of femme fatale role, so we’re still satisfied, but we’re not wowed anymore. We’re just not.
This whole movie felt like a DOA. A flatline. It came way too late. Nobody seems to have cared to make a great movie. And when you’re not trying to make the best movie possible when you make a movie, wasting all that talent, time and money for a flop, you shouldn’t be making the movie to begin with. I like to think Robert Rodriguez is capable of better. He spearheaded one of the ideal “filmmakers making movies because they love movies and know how to make a good one” movement in the 90s. He does this job as a labor of love. I like to hope Frank Miller will turn around. His inner-city Hells once had damned heart like in his Daredevil run or Year One or Ronin.
I mean, when two of your yarns in the same film hinder both of their climactic setpieces on the manipulation of the same strongman character who appears in all four yarns, you’re not even respectful of the potential of your universe you’re not. And I’m glad the box office flop of this film made the idea of a series a moot point, it’s really a sympathy killing.
What can I say that’s outright good about the film? Uhhhhhh… it still looks nice, but it’s just one of the many things about Sin City: A Dame to Kill For that it stubbornly refuses to let go from its predecessor and it’s the only thing that completely works. It also helps with the 3D that I was forced to watch it in… there’s a whole new plane to be considered in between all the smoke and shadows and it’s probably one of the few 3D movies I’ve seen where I’m not like “FUCK THIS SHIT!” (though, of course, it’s not on the level of Gravity or TRON: Legacy).
But that’s it. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For has spent itself not trying to improve or go above its original as a movie, which sucks when I was looking forward to the film for nine damn years (and it looks like I’m the only person, judging from the box office). It’s convinced that the trillions of movies that came after Sin City doing the same style of green-world technology (including the rip-my-fucking-eyes-out-bad The Spirit – directed by Miller himself with Rodriguez to help weigh in on creative decisions) do not exist.
And that’s fine. A Dame to Kill For still is better than, say the 300 films or uhhh… I got nothing. It could have been worse is what I’m trying to say. But there are so many ways it should have been better…
… and a significant amount of that hinders on how the stories were arranged… which I will go over… in the second part…
TO BE CONTINUED…