Maybe there’s little sense in asking a movie named Sin City: A Dame to Kill For to show some restraint; the title is a promise of naughty behavior left unchecked by laws and basic human morality. But if Robert Rodriguez’s sequel to his 2005 adaptation of Frank Miller’s hard-boiled neo-noir comic book series needs anything, it’s a healthy dollop of moderation. At only ninety-eight minutes in length, the film somehow manages to feel bloated compared to its predecessor, stuffed to the gunwales with an excess of excess. When severed heads tumble across the screen like fleshy soccer balls for the umpteenth time, all the visceral thrills of graphic dismemberment fade away. Who knew hyper violence could feel this routine?
Blame the source, then. Miller’s comics aren’t well known for holding back, and across his myriad black-and-white yarns there flows a veritable deluge of bloodshed coupled with liberal nudity. That’s the appeal, of course, and in Miller’s sparsely inked tomes it works (sometimes more successfully than others). In Rodriguez’s movies, the same qualities strike with the subtlety of a jackhammer. That’s not a big deal, really, because nuance has never been Rodriguez’s bag, but his screen treatments of the Sin City brand illustrate the problems with taking comic book adaptations to literal extremes: what plays nicely on the page won’t necessarily play quite so smoothly when set in motion.
So Sin City: A Dame to Kill For stumbles hard on its own indulgences. That’s not to say the affair is a total wash; when the film finds a groove, it’s a grimy, stellar-looking piece of stylish debauchery. But Rodriguez (nominally co-directing with Miller) has the devil’s time finding that groove, much less maintaining it for more than twenty minutes. Four new micro narratives are on the slate this go-round: cocky gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) plays a dangerous game with the nefarious Senator Roark (Powers Boothe); Dwight (Josh Brolin) confronts an old flame (Eva Green, the eponymous dame) and falls into a labyrinth of sexual deception; Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) plots her revenge against Rourke for the death of John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) in the previous film; and Marv (Mickey Rourke) goes out for a skull-busting night on the town to cure his boredom.
That’s one packed chapter listing. In the interest of fairness, the first Sin City boasts just as much content, but it also enjoyed the benefits of intelligent direction and an additional twenty-six minutes of run time. It’s a two-hour Russian nesting doll, confidently edited with an underlying logic and a sense of purpose. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, on the other hand, has no internal cohesion driving it forward; it’s the very definition of “slapdash,” a movie that’s stitched together with no consideration given to how one segment gives way to the next. It’s needlessly rushed. Even during the film’s trademark sequences of splattery brutality, Rodriguez hurries to get from point A to point B. There’s hardly any space to revel in its baser pleasures, much less critique them. Sensitive moviegoers may complain about the film’s relentless celebration of bad taste. What they really ought to be offended by is its sloppy craft.
Scattered throughout the hodgepodge are a handful of performances that help prop up the movie’s weak points. Chief among these is Green, who in 2014 is on a hot streak playing over-the-top villainesses with maniacal brio (following March’s 300: Rise of an Empire). Sin City: A Dame to Kill For grants Green the dubious honor of being the sole female cast member with anything close to agency, and she dives into the role with more gusto and less clothing. In a word, she’s mesmerizing, much like the character she’s portraying. Talking about the particulars of what make her so great is tricky without pontificating about the male gaze (Green spends most of her screen time in her birthday suit, so much that the sight of her bare bust becomes tiresome after a while), but in Ava Lord the film finds an element of complexity worth mulling over.
Rourke, too, is a hoot, giving Marv a scuffed-up heart of gold as he casually mows through scumbag after scumbag; and Boothe menacingly flits in and out of frame to give the film the megalomaniac it deserves, all from behind the façade of a predatory grin. They’re both terrific, and largely because they both understand what a movie like Sin City: A Dame to Kill For requires of them. They go big. It works. The rest of the troupe is fine—Brolin and Gordon-Levitt acquit themselves well enough—but few outside of the odd Christopher Lloyd are given their own moments to shine. It turns out Rodriguez isn’t the most egalitarian director. He keeps the best beats for only a few of his stars, and it’s scraps for the rest. What a shame to see such a stacked cast kicked to the wayside.
Director: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller
Writer: Frank Miller
Starring: Eva Green, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mickey Rourke, Powers Boothe, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson
Release Date: Aug. 22, 2014