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SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014) review

August 23, 2014

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written by: Frank Miller
produced by: Sergei Bespalov, Aaron Kaufman and Stephen L’Heureux
directed by: Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
rating: R (for strong brutal stylized violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and brief drug use)
runtime: 102 min.
U.S. release date: August 22, 2014

 

It’s August. Generally considered to be the month where studios release whatever summer releases they have left as they prepare for fall. Most comic book related movies have typically already been released, except this year. “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” is the third movie based on a comic book to be released this month and surprisingly, the first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, have been the biggest hits of the summer. This sequel will draw a predominately different kind of audience though.

Similar to the last movie, co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller use a non-linear narrative to tell three, somewhat interwoven, hard-boiled tales from Basin City. It provides viewers a chance to sink back into the seedy (mostly) black-and-white world inhabited by lowlifes, strippers (who don’t strip), tough guys, femme fatales, weasels and despicable politicians. We also acclimate ourselves with actors new to the city, who’ve been cast in new roles or recast in old ones. Some from the first movie are missed (Clive Owen, Michael Madsen and late actors Michael Clarke Duncan and Brittany Murphy) and others are forgotten (Josh Hartnett). What “A Dame to Kill For” definitely has going for it is a more streamlined and easy to follow ensemble cast. Unfortunately, that’s not enough.

The movie opens with Marv (played once again by Mickey Rourke, his best role in the last ten years besides “The Wrestler”) dealing with amnesia and a group of obnoxious frat boys who get their kicks out of lighting the homeless on fire. We’ll then see him pop up in stories involving betrayal, revenge, adultery and seduction, serving as either a cohort or protector.

 

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One story involves a gambler named Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cocky newcomer who makes the mistake of challenging power-mad Senator Roark (a camera-mugging Powers Booth) to poker. Another finds Dwight (Josh Brolin, replacing Owen) trying to keep his animal rage in check as he handles odd gigs like taking incriminating snapshots of naughty married businessmen, such as Joey Canelli (Ray Liotta and his naked butt that you can’t unwatch), until he reunites with Ava (Eva Green) and succumbs to her magnetic allure. She needs Dwight’s help leaving her husband Damian (an all too brief Martin Csokas) while alluding his behemoth bodyguard, Manute (Dennis Haysbert, replacing Duncan). We catch up with stripper Nancy Callahan (another awful turn from Jessica Alba) now a functioning alcoholic, who hasn’t taken the suicide of detective John Hartigan (Bruce Willis, in ghost form) very well and is set on bringing down Roark in order to avenge her former protector.

Also on hand are the territorial ladies of Old Town, led by Gail (an underused Rosario Dawson), who provide ample back-up for Dwight. What would a trip to Sin City be without them? Other characters who briefly return from the first movie are the twins Goldie and Wendy (again played by Jaime King) and Commissioner Liebowitz (Jude Ciccolella). Speaking of the law, we have the detective partners Mort (Christopher Meloni, who must have studied “Basic Instinct” to prepare for his part) and Bob (Jeremy Piven, replacing Madsen), who get pulled into Ava’s web. One character who offers a moment of delight is back alley doctor Kroenig (a fitting Christopher Lloyd), who recalls a twisted Dr. Nick Riviera. Lost in heavy make-up or cameo roles are Stacy Keach, Juno Temple and Lady Gaga, which is probably a good thing.

That’s about it for the storylines in “A Dame to Kill For”, which finds screenwriter Miller culling from the second book of his series, some other Sin City shorts and two new stories written exclusively for this movie. If you’re even vaguely familiar with the film noir conventions that Miller is hyper-stylizing here, you won’t find surprises in any of these stories. There’s an attempt to unsettle viewers with decapitations, amputations and eye-gouging or titillate (sorry, had to) us with ample nudity (hey, it’s artfully done), but audiences have become desensitized by all of the visuals that earn this movie’s R rating.

 

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What would keep a movie like this alive and fresh would be a more insane and mischievous tone combined with a ‘less is more’ approach. There are no unpredictable characters here, which leaves “A Dame to Kill For” wanting. There’s a need for something that goes beyond the expected conventions previously laid out in decades of noir. Rodriguez and Miller could care less about all that though and would rather hit us over the head with the same thing over and over again.

When Eva Green’s Ava is shown topless or completely nude in just about every scene, it gets old. Green may be the MVP of the movie, which is no surprise to anyone who saw “Dark Shadows” and “300: Rise of an Empire”, but the directors overlook the fact that here is an actress whose penetrating stare is more memorable than her bare breasts. Really. Anyone familiar with Green’s previous work knows that as the titular dame she is reason enough to see this movie, but I must admit feeling an uncomfortable sense of overexposure as I watched her performance here. Showing less of her would’ve brought more mystery and curiosity to Ava, instead of coming across like cheap porn noir.

Beyond Green, the other standouts are Gordon-Levitt and Brolin, both offering the appropriate amount of charisma and brooding, respectively. But what I noticed about all of these performances during this revisit to Sin City is how fake everything around the actors felt. I’m not talking about the ripped-from-the-comic-page feel that I actually like (although it was better in the previous movie), but moreso the rooms the characters inhabited or the tables they were sitting at. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s digitally inserted.

That’s no surprise considering there are certain scenes between two actors that were Rodriguez and Miller filmed in different locations and then spliced them together in post. That’s convenient and definitely a good use of technology, but it also takes anything natural out of the moment and the performances. If visuals are your main draw, you won’t be disappointed. In that case, you might as well see it in 3D to get the full effect.

 

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Die-hard Rodriguez and Miller fans are out there, guaranteed to devour anything the two offer, but I wonder if they’re still interested in another “Sin City” movie. It’s been almost ten years since the first movie and during that time the sounds of bemoaning fans asking for a sequel could be heard every time the directors released new creative work. A revisit to the desperate and disparate characters had been hinted at, but there was obviously no real hurry. Rodriguez was busy bouncing from CGI-heavy family fare to grindhouse-level action flicks, as well as creating his own cable network. Miller delivered the worst Christmas present ever to fans of the title character in “The Spirit” back in 2008, with his disappointing solo directorial debut.

It feels like time didn’t do any favors for this sequel. We’ll see if the fan anticipation will be quenched or if those with understandable apprehension for “A Dame to Kill For” will wind up disappointed. They may walk away like I did, feeling like the more-of-the-same approach used here doesn’t impress the way it did the first time. How could it?

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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