Sin City was a spectacle upon release in 2005. Loaded with a visual and narrative style that was delightfully familiar for readers of the books and entirely original for non-readers, the film was one of the first to be shot completely on green screen (along with the underappreciated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow). It was all hard-boiled grit, energy, and sick humor packed into a stark and stunning presentation.
A lot has happened in the nine year since then. Not only have several movies been made using green screen backgrounds (including another Frank Miller adaptation in 300, its sequel, and Miller’s own directorial debut The Spirit) but comic book adaptations have become gone from an occasional release to the biggest draw in mainstream cinema. As well, much has changed for Miller himself as most of his recent creative work has been widely panned (the aforementioned The Spirit), ridiculed (All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder), and overall horrible (Holy Terror), even before his reputation took a major tumble, all of which has caused fellow creators and many long-time fans to abandon his work and decry the man as finally losing whatever lingering genius or sanity he’d previous clung to.
While none of this has anything to do with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For as a movie, it’s likely hard for those one-time readers and fans not to remember this creative and personal descent while watching. Although the original book was released years earlier, Marv’s snarled voiceover about spoiled college kids immediately invokes Miller’s own comments about Occupy Wall Street. Many of the things which made Sin City a pulpy pleasure in the first place – the stylized violence, the objectified dames, the terse narration – are less enjoyable by knowing that they aren’t created for a fiction but possibly how the creator actually sees the world. Basin City may be a fun place to visit, but it’s nowhere anyone should want to live.
Sin City A Dame to Kill For begins as it should, with Marv spinning one of his bloody guardian angel stories. It’s immediately obvious that this is definitely the same city as the previous movie, almost as though time has stood still. Unfortunately for the audience, it hasn’t, and what worked in 2005 doesn’t necessarily fly in 2014. A Dame to Kill For still exists in the over-the-top, hyper-stylized, noir-tinged world of Sin City, where everything from car to curves are amped to the highest extreme, but much of the novelty has gone and its presentation is already outdated. Visually, the stark black and white with occasional color remains beautiful, the compositions are strong, and the cinematography is striking. The occasionally ridiculous poses can be excused as directly out of the comics, but every character moves with a stilted stiffness that resembles early CGI animation. Even with all the hard hitting fights and other physical activities, there is a complete lack of weight behind anything. Similarly, the splashes of color which denoted meaning in most of the previous film no longer bear the same significance in the sequel, much as Quentin Tarantino’s one scene in the original splashed a relative spectrum across the screen with no meaning.
Oddly, of the three stories featured in A Dame to Kill For it’s the titular tale, one of the earliest Sin City yarns, which is most lacking. Josh Brolin’s Dwight is a bigger, more menacing figure, but the character suffers by not having Clive Owen reprise the part. While the other, new stories are nicely dissected, allowing the tension to build between cuts, Dwight and Ava aren’t given such a break. Meanwhile tales featuring Johnny and post-Hartigan Nancy feel meatier. For comics readers, Nancy’s story will likely be the most effecting as it presents a familiar presence in a new situation, even allowing the ubiquitous but thinly developed stripper to become something resembling a character. (It should also be noted that as great as Jessica Alba looks in the part, her casting makes Nancy the most clothed stripper ever.)
The main problem with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is that it’s too little improvement and too late for the novelty. If the film had come out three years after the first, the narrative and visual style might still feel new enough to overcome the awkward now movement, narration, and structure. Unfortunately, after a nine-year gap, that innovative nouveau-retro feeling is gone, causing A Dame to Kill For to get old fast.