There are three stories in Frank Miller’s new film, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and they involve various interactions and arrangements of scantily clad women and violently obsessed men. Mostly, Sin City’s about visual style. Shot in 3-D and high-contrast black and white, it’s a world of dark shapes and splatters of colour – a woman’s glowing flesh, a slash of red lipstick, or blood seeping from bullet holes. It’s less startling than it was when the first Sin City was released in 2005, maybe even quaint, like a black-light Jimi Hendrix poster from the ’60s.
Comic-book artist Miller’s vengeful, hyper-masculine shadow world was a huge influence on post-9/11 movies: 300, Christopher Nolan’s three Batman films and the original Sin City, a formative movie in bridging the difference between live-action filmmaking and animation. That Sin City, which like the sequel was directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez (with one segment by Quentin Tarantino), was a sleek demonstration of the possibilities of the arts-exploitation hybrid.
In the last few years, there has been a sensibility shift in the comic-to-movie fantasy world: Humour crept back in. The Iron Man movies provided a turning point, followed by The Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy. That change makes A Dame to Kill For feel doubly retro, evoking Mickey Spillane and the horror-comic grotesques of the 1950s, but also the post-Pulp Fiction enthusiasm for tricky narrative structures and stylish carnage.
The central story sees Josh Brolin as Dwight (Clive Owen’s role in the earlier film), a shutterbug for hire who gets approached by his treacherous old girlfriend Ava (Eva Green). She insists she needs to be freed from her rich, sadistic husband (and if you don’t see where this is going, you’re as big a sap as he is). Another plot sees Marv (Mickey Rourke) and the stripper (Jessica Alba) seek revenge for a murder in the first Sin City. And finally, there’s a third plot which doesn’t really seem to fit, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Johnny, a cocky young gambler with a secret, who engages the corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Booth) in a game of high-stakes poker.
After a while the dames, mugs, thugs and their grotesque misadventures begin to get wearying, like watching body parts stream by on an assembly line. Eyes are gouged, heads removed, bodies impaled. Women undulate in slinky dresses, bondage gear and nothing at all, while the men are romantic fools, corrupt psychos or combinations of the two. Three stories of corruption and suffering in one sitting feels oppressive, pornographic and purgatorial in their repetition.
The solution might be in a different delivery system. If you showed the Sin City midnight world in smaller doses, as a weekly series on late-night cable television, the slick graphics and cold kink might be more compelling.