Sin City: A Dame to Kill For would be a lot better if it didn’t seem like a Men’s Rights recruitment ad. Every woman in the film is either manipulating a man, getting beaten, or pining for a man who couldn’t care less about her. Often all three at once.
I’m a big fan of the noir that Sin City 2 is riffing, but for all its slick prose and stylish affectations, I don’t think co-directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez have watched much of the genre lately. The film, like predecessor Sin City nine years ago, is based on the graphic novels by Miller (who also originated the 300 franchise). It poses a dirty, corrupt city where everyone’s a criminal – especially the cops and politicians. Gangsters and thugs aren’t any better, except for the five minutes in their lives when a petite blonde reminds them to be.
Visually, Sin City 2 is stunning…for the first 20 minutes. It’s black-and-white with thick shadows the way you’d find in a graphic novel, but with highlights of color – a woman’s bright blue dress, or blonde hair, or the red of a police car’s flashing lights. After the first few sequences, however, the visuals become predictable, surprisingly spare, and even repetitive.
We follow a few short stories, each one breaking for another and promising to return later. The first Sin City pulled this off successfully because it relied on Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, and Clive Owen to lead tragic vignettes. Those three can each squint and growl their way through a dozen noirs before breakfast. This second entry follows Rourke (The Wrestler), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper), Josh Brolin, and Jessica Alba (Fantastic Four).
Parts of Sin City 2 boast a strong narrative. These involve Rourke’s stone wall of a bouncer Marv and Gordon-Levitt’s cardsharp with daddy issues, Johnny. Both actors have a mastery for the kind of curt, metaphor-rich language the film asks them to recite. Even Alba, as stripper-out-for-vengeance Nancy, has hugely improved her control of noir dialogue from the first film.
The weak spot is Brolin (W.), who is actually playing the same character Clive Owen (Children of Men) did in the first Sin City. Brolin is many things, but a rebellious Welshman isn’t one of them. He can’t hack the noir language and his version of Owen’s sneering growl is to stare blankly ahead and mumble. He underplays the central role when everyone else is overacting their pants off. Literally. No one keeps their pants on for longer than 10 minutes in this movie.
Eva Green plays the manipulative Ava. As she’s shown in 300: Rise of an Empire and Dark Shadows, she’s the industry standard for deliciously overplaying villains in otherwise unwatchable movies. It’s strange that, instead of using her talents, the film grinds to a halt for 20 minutes of creepily voyeuristic worship of Green. I get it, she’s attractive. She’s also won a British Academy Award. Maybe the film can move on to, say, some acting?
Brolin and Green’s story is the most central and longest in the film. Unfortunately, it’s a complete mess, and it makes the much better stories surrounding it begin to try your patience. That’s never a good sign for a film only a few minutes over an hour-and-a-half. Rourke, Gordon-Levitt, and Alba gamely try to save things, but even their powers combined can only lift the movie from disastrous to bothersome.
What’s most frustrating is that noir movies were the place where women first exerted their power on film. Actresses like Ida Lupino in the 1940s began playing villains and strong femme fatales. While these characters manipulated others, they did so with their intelligence and wit, not by bedding every other character. They were dangerous because they were capable. The women in Sin City 2 aren’t capable. They’re posed as either powerless or deceitful – not because of their intelligence, mind you, but because the movie would have you believe that’s what women are underneath.
The film’s a cinematic, storytelling, and performance mess even before we get to the social commentary, but its backwards views on women are much more important to call out. In a summer where every action movie – even last week’s 1980s throwback The Expendables 3 – has balanced old-fashioned perspectives and style with increased inclusion of female heroes, ethnically diverse casts, and even disabled protagonists, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For feels unneeded, ill-advised, and a little bit sickening.
It’s rated R for violence, sexual content, nudity, and drug use, but it still manages to be boring.