When the first Sin City movie was released, George W. Bush had just begun his second term. Pope John Paul II died during its opening weekend; Hunter S. Thompson had taken his own life about six weeks earlier. People were talking about Terri Schiavo. Doctor Who had just returned to television after a 16-year absence, and Dan Rather and Peter Jennings had just anchored their final evening newscasts. The #1 single in the country was 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop.” Hitch, Million Dollar Baby, and Miss Congeniality 2 were still in theaters. Sin City opened against the Queen Latifah vehicle Beauty Shop, but neither film’s trailer was unveiled on YouTube, which would not launch until three weeks after their release date. In other words, the first Sin City came out a long, long time ago, and while the duration between that film and its sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For doesn’t fully explain the new film’s flaws, it’s quite instructive when examining the reactions to them.
So, how does the nine-year wait hurt the new Sin City? Funny you should ask.
- Innovations fade.
When that first film hit screens back in ’05, it was, from at least an aesthetic standpoint, a stunner. Co-director Robert Rodriguez employed the latest in CGI techniques to create the closest thing we’d seen to a graphic novel on the screen, and about as faithful a reproduction of Frank Miller’s books as was humanly possible (he literally used Miller’s frames as storyboards). As with the original, A Dame to Kill For is pleasurable to watch for its sheer dedication to replicating the aesthetic: the abstract, gorgeous images of free-floating bodies, blood, glass, cars, and bullets, rendered in moody black and white with noir shadows and splashes of carefully chosen color, flipping at key moments to evocative silhouette.
But the trouble with hanging your entire movie on its distinctive look the second time around is simple: jaded moviegoers have seen it already. And not just in the first movie all those years ago; Miller, in an ill-advised decision to try directing a movie without the cooler head of Rodriguez by his side, took that look out for a spin in the disastrously received and notoriously boneheaded 2008 flop The Spirit, while the film adaptations of Miller’s 300 books made similar strides in bringing the look and feel of the graphic novel to vivid life (with the aid of lotsa 1s and 0s).
With the novelty of Sin City’s style worn off, A Dame to Kill For has exactly one new element to offer: Eva Green in the title role, doing the femme fatale turn she was born for, sending up the vamp role and making a meal of it, somehow making the comical frequency of her leering nudity seem as much a component of her comic toolbox as her witty line readings and glassy eyes. (In an odd coincidence, she was also the only interesting thing in this spring’s 300 sequel.) Take her away, and it’s all just flash — but then again, you could say the same for the original.
- Time heals all flaws
The most puzzling reaction I’ve encountered to Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, in reviews and on social media, is from those who find it some sort of crushing disappointment in comparison to the brilliant original. Everyone’s opinions are their own, and I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone that their opinion is wrong. Except these people. Their opinion is wrong. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is, side by side, pretty much as good and as bad as the original, and it has most of the same problems. It’s all style and no substance, and said style springs from mere quotation of half-heard noir tropes — trafficking in clichés, rather than putting a spin on them. The picture has something like a half-dozen different tough guys who each get a turn growling sub-Chandlerian narration (as critic Scott Renshaw quipped, it’s “like if Beavis wrote a James M. Cain novel”); each is pretty much interchangeable with the others.
But it was during the film’s second armed infiltration of a heavily guarded compound that I remembered my main quibble with the first film: the sheer, exhausting monotony of it all. Miller (and thus Rodriguez) are only operating at one speed here, and once you get past the dazzling visual style and the inventiveness of the action beats, there’s not much there there. But let’s remember (and I’m at a loss for a less stupid-sounding way to put this): we were all younger nine years ago. Over a window of time like that, it’s easy to forget the considerable problems of a movie like Sin City — particularly if you are of the age and gender to have seen it when its mixture of guns, blood, boobs, and Jessica Alba go-go dancing was particularly potent. But now…
- Dimmed excitement = diminished returns
Talk of a Sin City sequel began almost immediately after the first film’s bang-up opening weekend; Miller started working on the screenplay the next year, announcing that production would commence by the end of 2006. But the years clicked by, with the production held back by scheduling issues, studio particulars, and the like; cameras finally rolled in 2012, but the film missed its original release date of October 2013, reportedly due to missed visual effects deadlines.
When that much time passes, a sequel’s gonna take a hit — particularly one with so many returning characters. The replacement of the late Michael Clarke Duncan with Dennis Haysbert is certainly understandable, but we’ve also got Josh Brolin in for Clive Owen, Jamie Chung in for Devon Aoki, and Jeremy Piven in for Michael Madsen (talk about a downgrade). Meanwhile, most of the returning cast members have seen their stars fall a bit during the hiatus; hell, Mickey Rourke had a full-on, Oscar-nominated comeback and subsequent return to the B-list while he was waiting on Rodriguez and Miller.
But when it comes to franchises, you’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot. After nine years of promises and delays, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For slogs in at the end of a summer where the “comic book movie” has gone in new directions — smarter (Captain America: The First Avenger), funnier (Guardians of the Galaxy), grander (X-Men: Days of Future Past). Box-office prognosticators are predicting a weak opening, likely behind another adaptation of a YA novel. That seems a fitting conclusion for a movie that was preceded by nearly a decade of hype, yet limps off-screen with little more than a shrug.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For opens today in wide release.