The first Sin City film was an example of a very small subset of comic book movies that slavishly adapt directly from the source material, using the comics as storyboards. (The other two films in this subset that immediately come to mind are Zack Snyder’s 300 and Watchmen.) It was nothing special—it’s hard to picture Sin City being anyone’s favorite movie—but at least certain scenes looked exactly like the stark illustrations from Frank Miller’s excellent first book in the Sin City series, which made the film a kind of proof-of-concept for digital filmmaking as a way to totally divorce flesh-and-blood actors from reality and insert them into an artist’s world. It was self-conscious noir rip-off, but it sure didn’t look like anything else at the multiplex.
And now, almost a decade later, co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Miller are back with a second Sin City movie, this one subtitled A Dame to Kill For, and it’s everything you hate about sequels: There’s not one original thought in the movie, the story is a weak rehash of the first film, and everything feels phoned-in. The problems spring from the source: After Sin City, the first book in the series, the quality of Miller’s Sin City series of books dropped precipitously. The art started getting lazy and loose; the writing veered into self-parody. Since the movie hews closely to the source material, it’s a less visually dynamic experience, and the dialogue is often laughably bad.
Dame follows a number of characters through very loosely related adventures, with no real energy or wit. The best actors are Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a card shark named Johnny (he almost manages to sell this terrible bit of voiced-over narration: “A city’s like a woman, or a casino. Somebody’s gonna win, and it’s gonna be me”) and Eva Green as a femme fatale named Ava. But even Green and Gordon-Levitt are adrift in a sea of black and white and splashes of color, doing meaningless noir riffs like some bad Saturday Night Live skit that runs on way too long. (And let’s talk about the use of spot colors in Dame: Specifically, it’s stupid. Some fire is in color, and other fire is in black and white. Some blood is in color, and other blood is just pure white. Sometimes Ava’s lips are bright red, and sometimes they aren’t. Without a consistent visual language, the color that occasionally pops up in the mostly black-and-white film is just meaningless emphasis, a child banging on a piano.)
With all these stories and characters sharing a setting, you’d probably expect Dame to be a well-structured film. You’d be expecting way too much. Rather than weaving the stories together, Dame cuts from one episode to another with all the subtlety of a commercial TV break, creating a stuttering rhythm of beginning and endings. And though they share a similar backdrop, the stories are maddeningly self-contained. The ending of Johnny’s story seems to set up some revelation in the final episode featuring Jessica Alba, for example, but that payoff never comes.
A lot of people had a lot of complaints about the first Sin City’s wooden dialogue and the fact that every female character was either a stripper or a prostitute. Fans of the comic justified those flaws by saying that Miller was commenting on a long tradition of noir storytelling, from Chandler to Spillane. But Dame to Kill For’s dialogue and female representation is so impossibly bad that it retroactively makes the first film, and the comics from which these films were adapted, look terrible. This is not a smart, respectful tribute to noir filmmakers and storytellers; it’s an unmoored succession of “cool” moments strung together with no overarching narrative or aesthetic sense, a couple of dumb boys fucking around with their toys.
In the last decade, Miller has lost his grip on reality; his solo directorial debut, The Spirit, is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, and the only comic he’s published in that time, Holy Terror, was a bigoted, jingoistic piece of shit. And Rodriguez has churned out bad film after bad film in a parody of the do-it-yourself aesthetic that made his debut film, El Mariachi, so charming. The fact that Rodriguez shoots, scores, and edits his own films no longer feels like ambitious frugality so much as baseless egocentrism, especially since the cinematography, editing, and soundtracks are relentlessly mediocre. The word that kept coming to mind while watching Dame—from the pounds of makeup slathered on Mickey Rourke and Stacey Keach to the waste of actors like Christopher Lloyd and Juno Temple to the rampant gun-worship—was “garbage.” This is an eminently disposable movie that just takes up space, with no reason to exist. It’s not even fun enough to be trash cinema; it’s just trash.