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This has turned into a long, bad night.

Movie

Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
(2014)

 

The surprising thing about this sequel is that the reactions to it pretty much mirror my response to Rodriguez and Miller’s generally applauded 2005 original. I was nonplussed by Sin City but, while I wouldn’t get carried away with praise, I found Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (sorry, I mean Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) a superior and, for the most part, better scripted anthology piece.

Perhaps some of that is down to William Monahan’s involvement, even if he doesn’t get a final credit. Unlike the first, the individual plots, excepting the direct sequel to the Hartigan tale, feel like they have paid attention to the punchiness required of the short story or embraced an actual noirish flair.

Central to this is Eva Green portraying the first bona fide femme fatale in the series. Her titular character, Ava Lord, measures up the film noir leading ladies of old, but with added mammaries. Wall-to-wall breastage is in Green’s contract, of course (at her behest, evidently), as, it seems are sequel/prequels to Miller projects (300: Rise of an Empire liberally flaunts both these features). Green is a deadly delight. If Ava’s machinations fail to represent the height of labyrinthine scheming, they at least lead to a modicum of “What happens next?” intrigue. There’s also a subtext of the user being used (Dwight’s the type willing to manipulate Marv to get what he wants, so maybe he has Ava coming).

Ostensibly, the A Dame to Kill For section is a Dwight story; the Dwight from the original played by Clive Owen, before he became Clive (through plastic surgery). There’s little character resemblance between Owen and Josh Brolin, and as actors they have a very different energy. I think I preferred Owen, simply because Brolin is too close to a Mickey Rourke rough-and-tumble type, but with less of Marv’s prosthetics (bar a gruesome eyeball at one point, and a ridiculous appliance to make him look not at all like Owen but a little bit like Ciaran Hinds in the final few scenes).

Mainly, though, it’s a Marv story. I took to Rourke’s performance in the original, but Marv’s characterisation is much more personable here. I’m not sure the make-up is as good (it’s less crude, which makes it less defined), but Marv is engaged, funny, wise-cracking and good company since he’s buddied up throughout; the line, “Roarks don’t die easy”, delivered by Mickey about Powers Boothe’s character, is the kind of meta gag that could have helped the strangely humourless original.

There’s a fair amount of recasting. Rosario Dawson’s back, looking as if nary a day has passed in a decade, but Dennis Haybert has none of the presence of the departed Michael Clarke Duncan as Manute (perhaps Haybert just doesn’t make a good villain). There are several other replacements throughout, although the also deceased Brittany Murphy’s character was left out.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Johnny is granted a tidy little tale with a sharp punchline, as the bastard card sharp son of Booth’s perfidious Roark, who keeps coming back for more punishment after he whips the Senator and then gets whipped for his troubles. JGL has quickly reached a level where anything he turns up in is worth a look (yes, even if that entails sharing the screen with boorish oaf Seth Rogen). It’s nice to see Christopher Lloyd in this too, as the junkie doctor who licks the lollipops sticks he uses as splints on Johnny’s messed up mitt. Lloyd joins the ranks of Cage, Cusack and Willis in doing a lot of work that no one ends up bothering to see. Do they all share an accountant?

As for Bruce, he’s back from beyond the grave, possibly in reference to The Sixth Sense. This one’s a turkey. Alba returns as the most unlikely stripper ever, with sugar daddy Bruce whispering in her ear.  Her Nancy uses Marv just as Dwight did, but there’s no judgement to be construed from this (I guess she does get shot a few times). It’s all a bit tedious, Marv aside, and recalls the self-involved obsessing of the first movie. There’s the odd amusing touch, such as Roark keeping a picture of his son as the hideous yellow bastard rather than in genuine Nick Stahl form, but mostly it’s a fizzle.

That Green’s character is so strong slightly dampens the rampant misogyny of the first instalment; its notable that the more extreme and repellent aspects of both the original 300 and Sin City have been tempered in the eventual follow-ups. Some might call that a cop out, but in both instances, by coincidence or design, I found this led to better movies; there’s less mistaking the wood for the trees in terms of ground-breaking filmmaking techniques being the whole point of the exercise.

On that score, there’s nothing to get too fussed over here. There’s an occasional visual flourish (a giant Marv superimposed as cars streak by; very graphic novel), or silliness (Leaping in front of moon to fire an arrow), but it’s of a piece with the picture a decade hence and so fairly old hat. There’s even a silly looking heap of prosthetics played by Stacey Keach, emphasising, if emphasis were needed, that this is a heightened world.

So A Dame to Kill For indulges marginally less for-the-sake-of-it grotesquery and puerility than its predecessor. Because it is less gleefully objectionable in its depravity, measuring its indulgences against a desire for storytelling, it ends up taking a more traditional tack that goes some way towards being a half-decent neo-noir. I wouldn’t say its failure is a shame – it’s not that good a picture – but I’m dubious about blaming this on the gap between movies. If the public is interested in a sequel, they’ll show up, lag on no lag (Anchorman 2300). No one said TRON Legacy had waited too long. I suspect the problem is that this particular gimmick had a limited shelf life, a shiny bauble that could only distract the once. Ironically, Miller and Rodriguez went some way to making up for the imbalance with a couple of decent plots, but it was too late.

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