Robert Rodriguez has once again shuffled far enough to one side to share his directorial space with Frank Miller, the brains and writing talent behind the extreme noir Sin City comic book series. The sequel, A Dame To Kill For, has the same bite as the first – heads are sliced and sent flying in a burst of bright white, corrupt cops and politicians ruling Basin City with the most violent of iron fists – and even manages to improve on a few fronts. But, just as Senator Rourke will allow you to beat him at the price of your fingers, it taketh away a few things in return.
We’re re-introduced to the world without welcome: Marv, that ugly charming bastard with skin thicker than a bull, has just been thrown out of a car. He’s not entirely sure what happened – the first minute he constantly finishes every proposition with a conjunction, “ but I don’t remember” – and soon enough he’s able to piece it all back together: late night walking the streets, find a few young kids setting bums on fire for a laugh, chase ‘em down and teach them a lesson about respect that includes their own mortality. Another regular night out. We’re left playing catch-up to what Marv is trying to piece together but once we do, the film then proceeds to do the same, filling in gaps that aren’t quite necessary and keeping things running sluggishly.
The strangest thing about the city is its own bizarre sense of righteousness. In the first one, Clive Owen has a conversation with a head impaled by the barrel of a gun. Here, Ava Lord spends a great deal of her time completely naked (top half visible) but when Dwight lies in bed in his own similar state, there’s a black hole between his legs, as if he were neutered. A stripper is fully clothed at all times. For a city that lives in sin, sex is mostly reduced to heaving cleavage while eyes are happily gouged out at whim.
The title story, starring Eva Green as Ava Lord, is easily the best thing about it. Former cop Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) is struggling to find a new, more fulfilling path in life – he’s working as a private detective these days, photographing politicians with their pants down. One night he is greeted by his ex, Ava, and the old lust returns. She’s been the big reason for his turnaround: being with her only ever made his life turn to shit. But, still, some dames make you hurt hard in Basin City and he can’t fight temptation and soon finds himself working as Ava’s puppy dog, rushing about to please.
Of course, nothing is what it seems. He, and a couple of other cops, are being manipulated by Ava so she can come out on top. And she’s very, very good at it. Her performance as the Cruella De Vil of this place has been the best thing about this series. Disappointingly the rest of the film struggles to be as great.
There’s a fun sub-plot with Gordon-Levitt as the cocky gambler Johnny who, either daring or stupidly, takes on Rourke, the most evil politician on the planet. He meets Marcie, a young naive waitress, who escorts him to the poker game hosted by Rourke as his Lady Luck. And, sure enough, Johnny walks out victor to only be almost killed in retaliation by Rourke and his men.
If only the remainder were as fun. The weakest part of the film is Nancy Callahan sobbing over the suicide of her protector, John Hartigan. It’s a tender moment made awkward by Jessica Alba’s bad acting, reminiscent of sixteen year-olds engaging in temper tantrums because they couldn’t attend a sleepover. The dialogue is fantastic at times when it fully engages with its own influences – Burroughs and a hundred other hardboiled detective novels – such as, “the pavement greets me with a sloppy kiss” when Marv hits it with heavy impact. Unfortunately the rest of the time it’s reduced to stilted phrasing that sounds grandiloquent off the page: “This town soils everybody.”
The comics are rather brutal and in the best possible way. Miller has a fantastic vision for political decay. For hardboiled crime and human interaction, reduced to base primal behaviour. Rodriguez has done a stunning job in trying to maintain the same visual look, mostly via the black and white panelling, and dialogue, despite it not always being successful. But something has been lost along the way. The dirtiest grime has been cleaned, like a death metal band releasing an unplugged album. Miller and Rodriguez want to return you to the mean streets but only made it a few suburbs in. It’s a place that should be like your head is forever stuck in a tightening vice. A Dame To Kill For is more akin to a punch to the chest – it hurts for a little bit but you get over it pretty quickly.
[rating=3] and a half
Nicholas Brodie – follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire