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Josh Reviews Sin City: Dame to Kill For

For me, growing up, Frank Miller was one of the gods of comic books.  He seemed to be a master of the form of a super-hero comic-book, crafting some of the finest mainstream super-hero comic-book stories I had ever read (his long run on Daredevil; Batman: Year One; The Dark Knight Returns; and many others) before moving into less-mainstream, even more interesting work (Ronin, Give Me Liberty, and of course Sin City).  I loved Sin City as a kid.  It was a potent distillation both of Mr. Miller’s incredible drawing style (boiled down into deceptively simple black-and-white with bold shapes and brush-strokes) as well as his writing.  Plus, it had that edge of transgression (Violence!  Nudity!) that made it impossible for a kid to resist.

I enjoyed Robert Rodriguez’s 2005 film Sin City, which adapted three of Mr. Miller’s Sin City yarns: The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard.  The film wasn’t perfect.  I thought it moved too fast, not giving the stories enough of a chance to breathe.  I also thought that in places Mr. Rodriguez was too literal in mimicking Mr. Miller’s comic-book panels for the screen in a way that weakened the film.  Example: early in the film, Marv is being cornered by the police, so he busts through his door before they can come in and arrest him.  Mr. Miller drew that like Marv exploding through the door, and it’s a great panel.  But in the film, where Mr. Rodriguez copies that image exactly, it feels like Marv set off a bomb on the door, or like he’s a super-human like Superman.  I don’t think Marv is a super-hero.  He doesn’t have super-powers.  He’s just an incredibly tough lug.  A more naturalistic moment of him breaking down the door would have worked better for me than the super-hero-like explosion we got.  There are lots of little examples like this all through the film.  It’s a question of taste, I guess.  You don’t want to remove all of the craziness and idiosyncrasies of Mr. Miller’s stories, but when translated so literally there were a number of moments that would up reading as too comic-book-silly to me, in a way that undercut the threat and drama of the story being told in the film.

On the other hand, the genius of Mr. Rodriguez’s film, and the reason I loved it as much as I did, was the way he really did bring Mr. Miller’s comic book panels to life.  Making extensive use of computer-generated effects, Mr. Rodriguez created extraordinarily simplified looks to the sets and characters in a way that exactly, and I mean exactly, mimicked Mr. Miller’s drawings.  The whole film was in black-and-white, with just spots here and there of spot flat color to draw attention to something, exactly as Mr. Miller had done in his comics.  If Mr. Miller drew a character with a simplified tie all in white, or with just white in a character’s glasses, Mr. Rodriguez and his team used CGI effects to create exactly the same look on their live-action characters.  No one had ever done anything like this before.  Mr. Rodriguez wasn’t just adapting Mr. Miller’s stories, he was literally recreating them, panel by panel, scene by scene.  It was extraordinary.

At the time of the film’s release, Mr. Rodriguez spoke of wanting to adapt all of Frank Miller’s Sin City stories, and I found that a thrilling idea.  It also seemed easily attainable, since Mr. Miller had only done five full-length Sin City stories (plus many short stories).  Since Mr. Rodriguez had fit three Sin City tales into his first film, it seemed that a trilogy of films could easily tell the complete Sin City saga.

But for some reason, it took Mr. Rodriguez almost a decade to get a sequel to Sin City made.  (The exact same thing happened with the other major, successful adaptation of a Frank Miller comic: Zack Snyder’s 300.  That film took what Mr. Rodriguez did in Sin City and took it even further, visually, and was a big hit.  But it took until this year for them to make a sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, and while I thought the film was OK (click here for my review), it wasn’t all that successful.  It felt to me that they missed their window, and that almost a decade later there wasn’t much interest in the story being continued.)

I feel the same way about Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.  I have read some really savage reviews of this film.  I don’t agree that it is as horrible a film as many people are saying.  But it’s unquestionably weaker than the first film, and to me it feels like a film whose time has passed.  Had Sin City: A Dame to Kill For been released back in 2008, I bet it would have been a hit.  But now, it seems like the public’s interest has passed.  And while the film isn’t terrible, it’s also not great, so this isn’t an example of the public foolishly ignoring a gem.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For tells four stories.  Curiously, only two of them are direct adaptations of actual published Frank Miller Sin City comics (the titular A Dame to Kill For and Just Another Saturday Night, the latter was not one of the full-length Sin City tales but rather a short one-shot comic).  The other two main stories of the film were written by Frank Miller directly for the film.  I’ll get into those new stories in more detail in just a minute, but I’ll say that the first one, The Long Bad Night, is terrible, and the second one, Nancy’s Last Dance, has merit but is flawed.  I am surprised at the choice of using two new stories and one minor short-story as three-fourths of this film.

A Dame to Kill For is one of the better Sin City stories, so I was looking forward to seeing it brought to life on screen.  The best part of the adaptation is the casting of Eva Green as Ava, the titular Dame to Kill For.  Ms. Green has played some wonderful man-eaters in her career.  (In a weird case of movie serendipity, she plays a very similar role in this year’s other too-late-sequel-to-a-popular-movie-adapted-from-a-Frank-Miller-comic-book, 300: Rise of an Empire.)  She is dynamite as Ava, creating a wonderfully loathsome cold-blooded manipulator who uses her body to bend men to her will.  Slightly less successful is Josh Brolin as Dwight, the sucker who Ava tries to play, but who eventually winds up turning the tables on her.  Mr. Brolin over-does the grimacing intensity in Dwight’s early scenes.  Rather than making Dwight a likable dude, he comes across as a total psychopath.  (I think this is another instance of being too exactingly literal in adapting Frank Miller’s words and images.  What worked on the comic page is tipped over the line into scary insanity when seen on film.)  I got into Mr. Brolin’s performance as the story went on — and I loved when he was paired up with Marv (Mickey Rourke) — but I wish he had toned it down in the early going.  Once Dwight gets his plastic surgery, I was hoping that we’d see the return of Clive Owen (who played Dwight in the first film, in a story that takes place AFTER the events of A Dame to Kill For), but instead they just buried Mr. Brolin under a lot of prosthetics, making him look like a wax candle figure or Clive Owen.  This was a weird choice — did they not want Mr. Owen back, or did he refuse to return?

I assume that Just Another Saturday Night was chosen to adapt for the film because it’s one of the few Sin City stories that features Marv in a lead role, since the character was killed off in Frank Miller’s very first Sin City story (adapted in the first Sin City film).  Marv pops up in both this tale and the central A Dame to Kill For here in this second film, with both stories set before the events of the first film.  I love Mickey Rourke’s work as Marv — what a great case of the perfect actor bringing a comic book character to absolute perfect life — but the story is forgettable.

Also forgettable is The Long Bad Night, the first of the two original Sin City stories written by Frank Miller for the film.  Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Johnny, a young card-player who runs afoul of the powerful Senator Roark (Powers Boothe).  He beats Roark in a card game, and then immediately pays for it.  I didn’t care for this story at all.  Rather than being a hard-luck character for whom we have sympathy, Johnny comes off as a huge idiot.  He goes out of his way to humiliate the powerful Roark, and then rather than skipping town to escape Roark’s revenge — which any moron should be able to see is coming — he hangs around town, partying with a pretty bar-maid.  I just didn’t get it at all, and as a result I had no sympathy for Johnny (or the bar-maid who decides to hang out with him, I guess because he was young and handsome and rich).

Lastly came Nancy’s Last Dance, a sequel to the events of That Yellow Bastard.  This felt like an important story to tell, and one that I would have loved to have seen published as a comic book or graphic novel.  This story focuses on Nancy, and her desire for revenge on Senator Roark following the death of Hartigan (Bruce Willis), the cop who had saved her life as a young girl.  Nancy is on a downward spiral, falling into alcoholism and bitterness.  At the core, this is a great story, and one that really deserved to be told.  Of course Nancy would be crushed after Hartigan’s death at the end of That Yellow Bastard, and the idea of following up to see what would happen next is appealing.  I love the idea of Bruce Willis’ returning as Hartigan in the form of a ghost/hallucination.  That was clever.  But I was a little disappointed by the ending, which felt too simplistic to me.  Nancy seemed to really be broken psychologically, so are we to imagine that she’s magically OK at the end?  And what would become of her, following the physical changes she did to herself?  This story left me with a lot of questions.  (I was also confused by the chronology.  I assumed that this story took place after all the other Sin City tales, so definitely after Marv’s death in The Hard Goodbye, but we saw Marv in the bar after Nancy cut herself in this story.  How could that be, when Nancy was dancing in the bar in The Hard Goodbye?  I suppose it’s possible that Nancy went back to dancing following the events of this story, but that seems extremely unlikely — the story is called Nancy’s Last Dance after all — and even if she did, she surely wouldn’t have looked the same.  So this doesn’t really make sense to me.)

I enjoyed that the chronology of this film was all jumbled up, just like the first film was.  I enjoyed the puzzle of sorting out when the stories in this film took place in relation to the stories in the other film (before, after, or during).  But as noted above, what seemed like a mistake in Nancy’s Last Dance was very bothersome to me.  And unlike the first film, in which the way the stories were structured, fitting into one another, seemed just perfect, here in the sequel it felt random.  In the first Sin City film, the epilogue wrapped together so wonderfully in the prologue, but here in A Dame to Kill For I felt no such well-thought-out symmetry.  That doesn’t sink the film, but it is a disappointment.  (This is probably also the place to note that the biggest flaw of A Dame to Kill For is its hugely weak sauce ending.  It ends with such a whimper, such a “that’s it??” ending, I was really bummed.)

I opened this review noting how highly I used to think of Frank Miller.  He has fallen significantly in my estimation in recent years.  He’s published almost no new comics in the last decade, and the two that I read (the first two issues of All Star Batman & Robin, and an abomination called Holy Terror) were horrendous.  He’s also made some very public comments that have shocked me with their revelation of Mr. Miller’s political viewpoints, opinions with which I strongly disagree.  I am usually able to separate my appreciation of an artist’s work with my disagreement with their political beliefs or my disapproval of their real-life actions.  So far that is still the case with Frank Miller, but nevertheless my opinion of the man and his work has dropped significantly.  I will say that the two new stories he wrote for this film are far better than his recent output had me prepared to expect, even though I wouldn’t consider either to be that great.

Robert Rodriguez has also seemed to have hit hard times recently.  It’s been a while since he has made a film that has been all that successful or all that popular with critics.  I haven’t been interested in much of what he has done since the first Sin City back in ’05 and Grindhouse in ’07.  I was hoping this long-awaited sequel would be a return to form, but not quite.

If you enjoyed the first Sin City I think you will get some pleasure from A Dame to Kill For.  But this is definitely an inferior film to the first.  I find it hard to believe that after this mediocre outing (which crashed and burned at the box office) we’ll see any further Sin City films, and that’s a disappointment.

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