It's time for another tour of the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked, bone-crushing, by-dame-betrayed streets of Sin City, and the old neighborhood remains as grittily stylish as ever, even if some of its stories start to ring a little too familiar.
The best news about "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," the nine-years-coming sequel to the dynamic and groundbreaking 2005 film adaptation of iconic (and iconoclastic) comic book writer/artist Frank Miller's magnum opus "Sin City" from similarly maverick filmmaker Robert Rodriguez who hewed so faithful to the original stories and visuals that he brought Miller in as co-director, is that the sequel is most certainly of a piece with the first film. Like two clenched fists in bloodied gloves, both movies fit perfectly alongside one other as both faithful, visually arresting cinematic adaptations of Miller's singular vision and 'roid-raging, hyper-violent, sex-addled send-ups of/tips of the fedora to the classic hard-boiled noir traditions of Chandler, Spillane and their pulpy brethren.
With blazing firearms, brutal fisticuffs, peek-a-boo lingerie and flashes of brilliant color in an otherwise black-and-white landscape -- and mostly inky black at that -- the film once again deftly translates Miller's printed artistry to the cinematic screen using all the methods Rodriguez pioneered in the first outing, with some added precision and even a new wrinkle in the addition of 3D, a technology that Rodriguez continues to demonstrate a fuller grasp of than many filmmakers. Though the first film stunned in its ability to rewrite many rules of movie-making, the second film isn't nearly as revolutionary, preferring to stick with a slick, slightly more perfected version, visually, of what "Sin City" does so well.
So the look is still there, as are several veterans of the originals all-star ensemble: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Jaime King and Powers Booth return in their roles, respectively, as the gravel-voiced modern day barbarian Marv, the traumatized exotic dancer Nancy, Old Town dominatrix/warrior woman Gail, the morally upright but now dead cop Hartigan, twin prostitutes Goldie and Wendy and, in an expanded role, the eminently corrupt Senator Rourke. They're joined by some new faces in familiar roles, most notably Josh Brolin as pre-plastic surgery-ed Dwight McCarthy, hero of the film's central storyline, stepping in for Clive Owen; Dennis Haysbert taking the mantle of bodyguard/enforcer Manute from the late Michael Clarke Duncan and Jamie Chung as the Old Town girls" elfin, katanna-swinging enforcer Miho. And then there are several new characters in the mix, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the cocksure gambler Johnny who seems to be unable to lose in a town full of losers, Christopher Lloyd as a rumpled back-alley "physician" and Eva Green as the titular femme fatale Ava Lord.
However, what "Dame" packs in star-power and style, it lacks somewhat in the consistency of the tales it tells. As before, the film is a collection of a few of Miller's pitch black nocturnes that occasionally criss and cross through characters and locales. Two of four stories are culled directly from Miller's existing body of "Sin City" works: The first, "Just Another Saturday Night," a short tale that primarily serves to bring the audience back into the distinctive world and remind them of the killing potential of Marv (as well as Rourke's winning, often amusing take on the character). It's a simple and effective refresher course, but otherwise non-vital to the big picture.
The second preexisting story, the one from which the film derives its title is, quite simply, as fine a filmic realization of Miller's works -- alongside the first film's take on "That Yellow Bastard" -- as can be imagined, effective in its own right as melodramatic, operatic pastiche of hardboiled crime fiction centering around a dumb-in-love loser and the woman poised to crush his heart and soul, and perhaps his body. Everyone involved brings their A-game to this one. It's one of Miller's best "Sin City" yarns, and Rodriguez's camera seems to come to greater life in the shooting of it, capturing its fatalistic spirit, cruelty and electrified uber-eroticism. And no wonder, because Green -- increasingly one of the most exciting screen presences working today -- plays her role in quicksilver shades with pitch-perfect tonal shifts, nailing each manipulative nuance with equal flashes of cunning and copious skin. Green's Ava is precisely as Miller envisioned, the ultimate embodiment of sexual desire and scheming agenda that threatens to consign any man she chooses to Hell. A line from Dwight McCarthy about the character also says it best about Green's performance: "Ava. Damn."
Brolin is equally masterful as Dwight. Tough and violent enough to inhabit "Sin City," morally upright enough to stand above the common vermin, but wounded and vulnerable enough to be prey to his basest, most unthinkable impulses. Delivering Miller's most subtlety-proof dialogue with compelling conviction (and occasional knowing camp) that often eludes other actors in the "Sin City" ensemble, both Brolin and Green simply shine -- as do the story's key supporting players Rourke, Dawson, Juno Temple, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven and particularly Christopher Meloni as the sadsack cop seduced by Green's silky succubus.
Of the newer, direct-to-the-screen tales concocted by Miller in concert with Rodriguez. "The Long Bad Night" feels as if it lacks some of the passion and a lot of the polish of the creator's prior works, but as an entry in the "Sin City" canon it works, by and large. Gordon-Levitt seems perfectly at home in his gambler character, projecting the early cockiness that earns him a seat at the poker table with the ferocious embodiment of corrupted power, Rourke, as both attempt to teach each other valuable -- and costly, in more ways than one -- life lessons, and the young actor also convincingly lowers his guard when the chips are down. Booth clearly relishes his role, and it's entertaining to watch two generations of actors go at each other, as well as to see Rodriguez layer in some of his own cinematic flair (especially the way he brings dynamism to the poker sequences) without having to be slavish to what Miller had put on paper. Still, the story's resolution is not as satisfying as other, juicer "Sin City" tales, climaxing with a hazy point much murkier than is usually gleaned from Miller's absolutist world view.
Finally, there's "The Fat Loss," a direct follow-up to "That Yellow Bastard" Miller was inspired to create after being impressed by Alba's interpretation of his exotic dancer/ingénue Nancy Callahan. At several points throughout the movie, we are reintroduced to Nancy, dancing at Kadie's Club Pecos, the favorite watering hole to her fraternal-minded protector Marv, and we discover that since the death of her noble cop savior/paramour Hartigan four years earlier, she's not only become a more aggressive, sexually provocative performer on stage, she's swigging straight from the vodka bottle and brandishing a gun with live ammo off stage as agonizes to work up the nerve to seek vengeance against Rourke, the father of that yellow bastard who delivered so much pain into Hartigan's doomed final days.
Alba is game to take the once sexy-but-sweet Nancy into the darkest corners that she can descend into, and she shows considerable maturation since the first outing, but the story -- despite some aspects rife with gloomy noir potential -- ultimately doesn't give her enough solid ground to tread. There's a flatness to the tale, plot-wise and even in the way much of it is shot, that doesn't quite fill up the screen in the way better incarnations of Miller's work can -- and it not only feel derivative of other Basin City scenarios, it feels derivative of aspects of stories we just watched minutes earlier (like "A Dame to Kill For," there's a clandestine assault on a heavily fortified mansion, with a duped Marv along for the mayhem -- and I may be wrong, but the timeline seems contrary to the lightly enforced but still thought-through intertwining continuity of all "Sin City" stories). It's a plot that needed more time in the oven, and given that they had nine years to bake it, ultimately it's the film's biggest failing. No one quite hits their stride here, and it's an ineffective close-out.
On the plus side, even if he's returning to familiar ground, Rodriguez seems considerably reenergized as a filmmaker throughout the bulk of the film, especially after the "Machete" movies, ostensibly an exercise in pastiche-ing schlock action films, began to seem more like genuine schlock themselves. Perhaps he works best with a muse like Miller, or concrete sources of inspiration like John Carpenter's deeply felt influence on "Planet Terror." In any event, Rodriguez moves a step or two back to being the exciting director he's been from time to time, even if he's lacking a greater degree of innovation this time around. It's a quite tasty, but not always filling, serving of more of the same.
"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" arrives in theaters Friday, Aug. 22.