There's a moment early on in “Sin City: A Dame To Kill For” where we find Frank Miller seated in the bar where Nancy (Jessica Alba) is dancing, looking very much like the sort of creep who you'd expect to see populating a Frank Miller universe at this point, and when I spotted him, time and space folded in on one another and reality collapsed.
Well, okay, maybe not, but it is a wink in a movie that is already one long, drunken, woman-hating wink, and more than anything, I sat through the film questioning those years when I actually considered Frank Miller an exciting voice in comics. At this point, “Sin City” is threadbare parody piled on top of suffocatingly stylish homage, and the result is almost unbearable.
Yes, you read that right. I'm one of the people who liked the first film. I thought it did a lot right, and I thought it was a purposefully-pumped-up take on film noir. At no point would I confuse “Sin City” with actual film noir, because it's not. Not remotely. Frankly, anyone doing it at this point is just indulging some on-screen cosplay. Film noir was as much about when and how it was made as it is about any of the stylistic details that people associate with the term. You can't just shoot in black and white and call women “dames” and expect that you've made real film noir. I never got the feeling that was the point of the first film, though. It was intentionally ridiculous, and it walked that line very carefully.
In this new film, there is no line at all. It feels off from the very start, and it ends with one of the weakest punchlines to a movie in recent memory, so much so that I wasn't sure the film was over even once the credits started to roll. Considering how long it took to make this one, you would expect that they had plenty of time to pin down a script that was worth making. Nope. What really frustrates me is just how much visual energy is being spent on such terrible ideas in this film. I still like the weird physics-free world of these movies where someone gets punched so hard they fly out of a second story window naked and somehow manage to survive. I'm fine with that as long as there's something clever or fun or outrageous going on, as long as there's some knowing spin on the genre or the style.
Instead, “ADTKF,” as we'll call it for the sake of brevity, tells a series of vaguely connected stories that build to no particular pay-off, and it almost feels like a statement on how smart, well-structured resolutions to stories are a bad thing, like Frank Miller's determined to write anti-punchline stories for the mere sake of doing it. The Joseph Gordon-Levit segment features him as Johnny, a young card sharp with an uncanny lucky streak who goes up against Rourke (Powers Boothe), the creepy patriarch from the first film, in a very high stakes poker game. Fine. That's a totally reasonable set-up. But the way the story unfolds is plodding, ugly, and ultimately without a point. I get why Johnny does what he does. I get why Rourke does what he does. I get it. But that's it? When you see how it ends, it feels like a lot of shoe leather for nothing.
If the point is the action, then I guess I'm not the audience this time around. It's all the same after a while, and for all the spurts of red and white (we won't get into the odd psychology of turning blood into something that looks like hot neon semen, although someone should probably write a book about all the things that are wrong with Frank Miller), it's dull. Mickey Rourke is over-used this time around, and again… it feels like someone making fun of the first movie. The make-up is more disconcerting, largely unsuccessful except in a few close-ups, and Marv is just the same joke over and over, a big dumb shark who is looking for a reason to get violent.
Eva Green plays the title role, and she comes close to getting the tone right for the material. I think Green loves camp, and I think she loves playing man-eaters. Ava seems to be a role that's right in her wheelhouse. She shows up one night to drop a bomb into the life of Dwight (Josh Brolin), who is a former conquest. She left him to go marry a rich man, and now she's back because she needs something from him. That's such an old staple of the detective/crime genre that Pynchon's “Inherent Vice” opens with pretty much the exact same set-up. I'll be curious to see where Paul Thomas Anderson goes from that beginning, because I guarantee it won't be where Rodriguez and Miller go with it. Brolin's got the right mixture of rage and self-loathing to nail the performance, but there's no place for him to go when he starts out playing the part at full volume.
It's a problem throughout the film. Rodriguez and Miller don't seem to have any sense of modulation. This entire film is like someone raised a kid in a room, cut off from all contact with the outside world, and all he had was a stack of Hustlers, a stack of Soldier of Fortunes, and a bunch of black-and-white stills from old detective movies, and at the age of 14, that kid gets turned loose and spends two hours screaming in your face about these stories he's been writing. It is embarrassingly juvenile, and while I think the women of “ADTKF” are stunning, costumed and photographed to spectacular effect, I am so acutely uncomfortable with the way the film treats women that I'm not really sure there is a way to defend any of it. At least when Ava is nude, it's because she is aware of the theatrical effect her body has on men, and she's using that effect to get something or to manipulate someone. Miller hates all of humanity, but he does seem to reserve a special grotesque contempt for women, and the film throbs with that hatred. It is ugly, through and through.
I laughed at a few things. Christopher Meloni plays a small but memorably crazy role, and any time someone wants to bring Christopher Lloyd in, I'm good with that. Stacy Keach shows up in a make-up appliance so outrageous that I demand an entire spin-off film showing his character's daily life. But those moments where it feels like things pay off are few and far between, and it ultimately feels like this return to “Sin City” is much too little, much too late.
“Sin City: A Dame To Kill For” opens in theaters on Friday.