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

August 22, 2014
Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

A day after watching the over-titled Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, I still find myself of two minds about it. The style and gloss is great, and it feels just as fresh from the pages of Miller’s Sin City books as the first movie did. And yet, it’s hard to shake the disturbing feeling that someone involved takes this stuff seriously.

Again we’ve got a pulp anthology, built from equal parts 1940s-era noir clichés, warmed-over Charles Bukowski, and Miller’s own swaggering macho wish-fulfillment. Basin City is the sort of place where the crime gang that runs Old Town may be composed of women, but they’re still prostitutes dressed in bondage gear. There’s no good or bad here, but only more or less corruption. They bleak, “gritty” view Miller injected into so many comics and their derived media — The Dark Knight Rises directly, but now also Man of Steel — is here uncut. It’s a strong, bracing jolt of a movie that will surely thrill those who really love this throwback attitude.

The stories themselves are linked with those from the 2005 installment, sharing characters and settings. Some function as prequels; others as sequels. The bulk of the movie is taken up by “A Dame to Kill For”, but we get a quick re-introduction to Marv (Mickey Rourke) in “Just Another Saturday Night”. We also get a couple original side stories: “Nancy’s Last Dance”, an unnecessary coda to “That Yellow Bastard” about Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) taking her long-awaited revenge; and the underdeveloped “The Long Bad Night”, the most interesting of the quartet, about a preternaturally lucky gambler (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with a score to settle with the corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Boothe).

“Dame” itself features Dwight McCarthy (recast as Josh Brolin) from “The Big Fat Kill” spinning out of control when his former lover Ava Lord (Eva Green) shows up, desperate for his help escaping from her husband and his bodyguard, Manute (recast as Dennis Haysbert). But since this is Sin City and not a real noir there’s no chance she’s an actual damsel in distress, and the situation is bound to be more complicated than it appears.

Now, I’ve seen enough of Rodriguez’ work to know how he likes to have fun with silly, pulpy material. This is the man behind the Machete movies, Planet Terror, and From Dusk till Dawn, among others, after all. And here he’s in fine form, translating Miller’s high-contrast graphic style perfectly to the screen. The two Sin City movies surely mark a high point in Rodriguez’ visual directing, with Miller’s striking art providing the jumping-off point. The only complaint is that the addition of 3D is totally unnecessary, and even distracting in the translation from comic book page to screen.

But Rodriguez’ other pulp work is clearly positioned as campy, or even comedic in its exploitation influences; if it didn’t look so well done it would be right at home next to Troma productions. This is different. Sure, there are plenty of laughable moments, but it’s more something to laugh at than with: the unearned melodrama; the sometimes ridiculous action sequences; the three times a woman says someone is “the only man I’ve ever loved”. Underneath Rodriguez’ obvious glee in rendering these pictures into motion there’s the slowly growing sense that Miller really believes in this stuff.

And that’s where this movie loses me. It’s not really noir, for all it cribs from noir aesthetics. It’s not even as transgressive as the first movie could be; it’s rather tame in comparison, actually. There’s nothing here except the same old ultra-masculine, oh-so-tortured men, and the slut-shamed “strong” women who either need one of the aforementioned men or are condemned for rejecting them. It’s the product of a puerile mindset that sneers at a world it declares “fallen”, and then pleasures itself to the rubble.

Caught between admiration for Rodriguez’ artistry as a director and disgust for the way Miller takes his ridiculous, sophomoric material so seriously, I may ultimately have to lean towards the quality of the production. Just because Miller — and, let’s be honest, a large portion of the target audience — thinks these are great stories doesn’t mean we have to take them seriously.

Worth It: on the principle that defenders win ties, yes.
Bechdel Test fail.

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