When Robert Rodriguez’s original "Sin City" was released in 2005, the VFX-heavy neo-noir felt genuinely groundbreaking —a comic book adaptation so faithful to the source material and its striking visuals that the comic's creator Frank Miller received a co-directing credit. Rodriguez and Miller didn't so much translate sequences as much as they cut and pasted arresting tableaus straight from the graphic novel. The dialogue encompassed the same hard-boiled monologues and staccato delivery; only word bubbles were missing. But as stringently loyal as it was (much of that dialogue being clunky), the film was outstanding visually, like nothing seen before on screen.
Nearly ten years later, Rodriguez and Miller revisit the rain-slicked, blood-soaked streets of Basin City. But instead of taking another bold leap forward, "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" pretty much maintains the status quo (with one notable exception). Stylistically and tonally, the "Sin City" franchise hasn’t evolved one bit.
Instead of the cold open that started the first film, with a character almost wholly unrelated to the rest of the narrative, "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" begins with the first film's breakout character —the hulking brute Marv (Mickey Rourke) hunts a pack of frat boys who enjoy setting homeless men on fire, and he also suffers from amnesia. This sequence establishes the puzzle-piece nature of the sequel's timeline with events taking place before and after the chronology of the relatively straightforward first film. The scene also introduces the primary visual draw of 'A Dame to Kill For' —an eye-popping use of 3D. As Marv goes through the windshield of a speeding car, glittery shards of glass attack the screen.
From there, "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" pretty much follows the format of the first film to the letter. It's comprised of a series of loosely connected vignettes that all take place in the same hyper-stylized film noir metropolis. The stories this time are a combination of material from the comic books and elements newly crafted for the film (while the screenplay is credited to Miller, both Rodriguez and "The Departed" screenwriter William Monahan contribute heavily). The results may be refreshing at times, but just as often they are almost painfully familiar. It’s the mixture of the habitual and novel that give "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" its distinctive, if somewhat blunted, sting.
In addition to the opening Marv story ("Just Another Saturday Night"), the standout "The Long Bad Night," features a new character named Johnny played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He's a card shark that sets about taking down the corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), a character who ranks as one of the more loathsome villains in the vile hierarchy of Sin City.
There's also "Nancy's Last Dance," an entirely new tale set after the events of the first "Sin City" situated around Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), the exotic dancer who found herself in a whole lot of trouble… and is now ready to exact her revenge. Bruce Willis, who played her brawny protector in the first film, returns in a ghostly form here.
The main storyline, "A Dame to Kill For," features a very different version of the Dwight character played by Clive Owen in the first film. Still a two bit criminal who runs afoul of some very nasty characters, this time he’s essayed by Josh Brolin. The first movie mentioned in passing that Dwight had “changed his face” but that’s all the justification you’ll find. Dwight finds himself entangled with Eva Lord (Eva Green), the smoking hot wife of a corrupt billionaire, who reaches out to him for help. She turns out to be an archetypal femme fatale, exploiting poor Dwight. Eventually Dwight and Marv team up to put the hurt on Eva and her massive bodyguard Manute (Dennis Haysbert, taking over from the late Michael Clarke Duncan). It’s here that the movie demonstrates a delightfully perverse kick, mostly down to Green's slinky and silky scene-stealing performance. Green dives, nude, into a swimming pool, and Rodriguez mirrors the splash so that it shoots out towards the audience. The scene is gratuitous —Rodriguez's portrayals of women are often said to be empowering, a claim negated when he's partnered with the notably misogynist Miller— but it’s also easy to understand why some dumb schmuck might be so heartsick for her.
"Sin City" is uniquely suited to Rodriguez's strengths as a filmmaker. He knows how to form a punchy sequence but often falters with longer, more sprawling narratives. So the bite-sized structure of "Sin City" is perfect, plus he's able to indulge his love of cutting-edge technology and extreme stylization without overwhelming the rest of the film. Despite their wall-to-wall green-screened surroundings, most of the actors feel at ease, and it's a testament to Rodriguez and Miller's ironclad conception of this world that nobody seems too lost (okay, Christopher Meloni, as a doomed cop, feels a little confused).
But ultimately, ‘A Dame To Kill For’ is a boilerplate film. You wish the filmmakers would have found a way to advance their well-drawn and stylized world. “Sin City” was a breakthrough genre picture with a unique visual flair, but that flair has a ceiling, one that's certainly been hit. Where could the series go from here? That answer isn’t explored at all, and one gets the distinct feeling the filmmakers were more interested in revisiting the world than revising it.
While the 3D effects add some kick, visually the movie is more or less tricked-out in precisely the same way. Where Rodriguez’s films skate by is the cast, which is are largely a blast to watch in entertaining scene-chewing roles (new cast members include Stacy Keach, Ray Liotta, Christopher Lloyd, Juno Temple, and Lady Gaga, along with returning veterans played by Jamie King and Rosario Dawson).
In the years since the first "Sin City" appeared onscreen, Hollywood has delivered a slew of comic book adaptations that have appropriated the same fealty-to-visuals approach, so in a new decade, Rodriguez's once-unique vision no longer feels radical. In fact, it feels a little surpassed. The customary nature of “Sin City: A Dame To Kill For” means the impact is certainly lessened. Iif you’re not looking for reinvention and loved the first "Sin City," then you'll probably love the sequel. [C+]