Sunday, September 7, 2014

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR Is A Fun Return to Frank Miller's Twisted Comic Book Universe


- Here's where I go against the critical conventional wisdom and say that the second SIN CITY film is actually good. Over the last several years, critics and fans, for whatever reason, have turned against Robert Rodriguez. Maybe he made one Machete movie too many. Maybe people are waiting for him to get serious as a filmmaker. Whatever the case may be, Rodriguez remains a filmmaker whose work I largely enjoy, and whose Sin City remains, in my eyes, a great film. The movie came out at a time when every comic book adaptation strove for realism. But Sin City, with its ripped-from-the-graphic-novels aesthetic, was a huge breath of fresh air. Finally, a film that seemed to honor not just the skeleton of the source material from which it was adapted, but one that actually took care to translate the stylized visuals of the comics to the screen.

Meanwhile, Sin City creator Frank Miller's reputation among the geek elite has also been steadily plummeting. Once, the man was a comic book god - the guy who crafted game-changing masterworks like The Dark Knight Returns. As time went on, Miller's extreme style went out of favor, and he didn't do himself any favors with oddball works like All-Star Batman and Robin, or with his spectacular crash-and-burn directorial debut, The Spirit.

However, going into SIN CITY 2 merely as a fan of the first film, I think it's fair to say that this movie exists in a sort of comfort zone for both Rodriguez and Miller. The fact is, this one is not a huge departure from the first film. If you liked that movie, there's nothing not to like here. You get the same gorgeous-to-look-at black-and-white comic book aesthetic (touched up with strategically-placed shocks of red or blue or yellow) - now even more eye-popping in 3D. You get the same gritty yet over-the-top neo-noir-on-acid storytelling - the same motley crew of thugs, vigilantes, dirty cops, strippers, and femme fatales. This is, quite simply, a return trip to the world of Sin City. If you dig Sin City, then you'll dig this.

And what is Sin City? I read so many critics who try to compare this film, and this world, to legit film noir classics and declare it lacking in comparison. Yeah, no kidding. Sin City is film noir, comic book superheroes, 80's-era nihilism, and escapist adolescent fantasy rolled into a blender and spit out and stomped on. Miller's work is over-the-top, unsubtle, and everyone - men and women both - are basically bad apples. To complain that this isn't Out of the Past or The Killing seems to be missing the point entirely.Yes, these movies and this world are completely ridiculous. Sometimes though, there's merit in that.

Now, if you like the world of Sin City, and don't inherently find it offensive, then you'll most likely find some things in this sequel to get excited about. One thing that's fantastic right off the bat is that the great Powers Boothe, as sinister Senator Roarke, figures heavily into the film as it's biggest bad - and as you can probably guess, he's friggin' awesome. I mean, this is Boothe in full-on evil bastard mode, and nobody does it better. Second thing to be excited about is new cast addition Eva Green. Green has been absolutely killing it of late - she wowed in the 300 sequel, and did Emmy-worthy work this past year on the Showtime series Penny Dreadful. Green is similarly great in this film, playing the classic femme fatale, as filtered through the scratchy, cracked lense of the Sin City-verse. It's now clear that Green is the best in the biz at doing these sorts of over-the-top characters. She nails the sort of pulpy, hammy tone that this sort of role requires, mixing old-Hollywood glamor with just the right hint of self-aware winking.

The rest of the cast is pretty uniformly excellent. Mickey Rourke again shines as the lumbering brute Marv. And he's got some great moments with Josh Brolin's hard-luck Dwight. Brolin acquits himself very well to the Sin City-verse, and does hard-boiled like he doesn't know any other way to be. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is also quite good as Johnny, a pushing-his-luck gambler who runs afoul of Boothe's Roarke. Also a stand-out is Christopher Meloni as Mort, an initially by-the-book cop who, in true Sin City fashion, compromises his integrity as he falls under the spell of Green's seductive Ava. Oh - there's also a weird but sort-of-cool Christopher Lloyd cameo.

I suspect a lot of people will point fingers at Jessica Alba as a weak point. I agree that Alba hasn't historically had the sort of forceful presence to fully pull off the role of troubled stripper. But I also think that Alba has grown as an actress, and she is good here. In particular, I really enjoyed her climactic confrontation with Roarke. She doesn't quite match Green for sheer screen presence (few do), but I also wouldn't call her a blatant weak link.

The movie's biggest weakness, I think, is its jumpiness and overall pacing issues. Pacing undeniably feels just a bit off, with fairly abrupt jumps between the film's intermingling but separate storylines, and certain sections that feel overlong and draggy. The movie has some solid action, but it is, overall, a bit slower-paced and more methodical than the first film. And yes, as much as I dig the overall Sin City aesthetic, there are, certainly, moments where it feels pushed a little too far - moments where the movie seems a little too caught up in self-seriousness to realize it should be having fun. But I think that's where Rodriguez's love for pulpy grindhouse filmmaking ultimately steers Miller's grim excesses away from the cliff.

Overall, I really enjoyed SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR. It may simply be more of the same, but it's a lot of fun to just watch these actors go all-out in the service of bringing Frank Miller's twisted world to life. If nothing else, you get to watch Eva Green vamp it up, Mickey Rourke bust heads, and Powers Boothe go full-evil - all in grand, highly-stylized fashion. Not a bad time at the movies.

My Grade: B+

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