Nearly 10 years after the release of "Sin City," Robert Rodriguez's ultra-stylish adaptation of Frank Miller's hard-boiled, neo-noir graphic novel series, the director returns to the rain-slick streets and darkened alleyways of Basin City. But something has clearly been lost in the intervening years. The original "Sin City" (one of the best films of 2005) was stylistically groundbreaking, among the first to build an entire world solely through the use of green screens. These days, the aesthetic has become a cliché as more and more movies seek to create massive scale at a fraction of the cost, though none have ever done it with as much style.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly why "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" feels hollow and empty whereas the first film was thrillingly alive. Perhaps it's simply the novelty has worn off, exposing how tired Miller's shtick has become. "A Dame to Kill For" presents an extremely exaggerated vision of noir, but here, things stumble across the invisible line that separates exaggeration from caricature. The characters' voice-overs, all swagger and disdain delivered through gritted teeth, start to sound the same. Miller's men are noble brutes while the women are all whores and strippers, either waiting to be saved by a man or die viciously by their hand. The ultraviolet tone and lurid storytelling were always there, but the weary, anguished soul that contained the humanity at the core of the first film is gone, leaving only a queasy, off-putting misogyny and nihilism. It's also possible that in taking the fatalism of film noir to its logical (and frequently, illogical) extreme, two hours was all the time one could bear to spend in this rotten town. But still, there's no reason for the experience to be this dull.
One thing the film does have going for it is Eva Green. By all accounts the best thing about "300: Rise of an Empire" was Green's scenery-chewing performance, and here she proves once again how completely at home she is acting against a green screen and nothing else, costume included. In the title story, Green plays Ava Lord, the archetypal femme fatale who convinces her private eye ex, Dwight (Josh Brolin), to kill her wealthy husband. As Ava, all Green is really asked to do is show off her breasts and deliver dialogue composed entirely of purred, sexy come-ons and snarling threats, but somehow, she invests her vixenish character with some dimension, adding an inky black sense of humor the film desperately needs more of.
Her plot is one of four stories contained in the film, none half as compelling as those found in the original "Sin City." The first sees Marv (Mickey Rourke), the breakout character enacting his own code of ethics by brutally murdering a group of depraved frat boys. In "The Long Bad Night," a cardsharp named Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dares to join a backroom poker game and win against the biggest bad in town, the ruthless Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), and spends the rest of the night regretting his decision. The final tale, "Nancy's Last Dance," picks back up with Nancy (Jessica Alba), the requisite stripper with a heart of gold. In the first film, Bruce Willis' good-guy detective died to save her, and now she's hell-bent on revenge. Her storyline barely allows the character some agency, though only after she dons dominatrix gear and cuts up her face to hide her looks (naturally, Marv immediately assures her "you look hot"). Sadly, Alba isn't a strong enough actress to pull off inner torment, frequently settling for a look of vague constipation. But really, it's all about the look. The film's distinctive style still packs a punch: the chiaroscuro black-and-white cinematography broken up with occasional bursts of high-contrast color is still as eye-popping as ever. If only the same wit and imagination that went into designing the look of the film was used when writing the script.