Silver Screen: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For 1/2*
The inherent problem with Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s big-screen adaptation of Miller’s comic-book series Sin City is that the source material is already a garish exaggeration of film noir. Repurposing the stories for a movie is like translating a novel from Japanese to English, then translating that translation back into the original language. Not only is it a pointless task, but in the process the work loses its fluidity and the seams of the story start to show.
Not that the comic books had much of a sense of purpose themselves. Their primary appeal is Miller’s blocky, stylized chiaroscuro artwork, which is handsome indeed. The books are better looked at than read; the narratives are generic pulp plots full of overly familiar characters spouting clichés, which Miller tries to inject with hard-edged modernity via amped-up sex and violence. The slavish efforts onscreen to recreate Miller’s artwork robs the imagery of its power— for a full study of the failure to understand the static-versus-dynamic nature of comic books and movies, see Ang Lee’s dismal 2003 Hulk— and the end result is a useless pile of types, tropes, and hyperbole utterly lacking in substance or entertainment value.
You’re excused for forgetting that Sin City was already a movie back in 2005. In the earlier days of the comic-book movie trend, that adaptation at least had novelty on its side. The monochromatic aesthetic and fusion of cartoonishness and brutal violence lent the movie a singular look, but perhaps codirectors Miller and Rodriguez recreated the graphic novels too well, because the movie is vastly improved with a mute button.
The original film also made use of nearly all Miller’s most prominent Sin City material, which leaves the followup with only the title story, a ho-hum James Cain riff done much better by any number of writers, especially James Cain. The rest of the fodder for this loosely connected anthology comes from one of Miller’s more forgettable one-off stories as well as two new tales, each less memorable than the last.
The hub of activity in Sin City is a strip club, because when you’re unimaginative and want to imbue a movie with unearned edginess, that’s your go-to setting. It also helps add some much-needed misogyny to the tiny handful of scenes that don’t feature either a helpless woman being victimized or any woman who exerts even the mildest agency doing something awful.
It’s here at Ye Olde Boob Shoppe that three or four B-movies’ worth of shady characters rub elbows. There’s Dwight (Josh Brolin), a hotheaded killer willing to do anything for the seductive Ava (Eva Green). Bullheaded bruiser Marv (Mickey Rourke) still spends his nights drooling over star attraction Nancy (Jessica Alba), but he’s willing to take a break every now and then for some semirandom murder. Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a gambler on a hot streak whose luck threatens to turn when he confronts a sleazy senator (Powers Boothe) with a family secret.
Representative sample scene from Sin City: Alba’s angelic lapdancer with a heart of gold is distraught over an earlier tragedy caused by Senator Rourke. We know she’s distraught because she guzzles vodka straight from the bottle like it’s Gatorade, in the manner that no person who drinks vodka ever would do, then performs a sexy number with a loaded pistol that she points first at her head, then at Senator Rourke. At this point, the hammy voiceover chimes in to wonder aloud which night will be the one when Nancy finally pulls the trigger.
So every night a movie-star stripper ponders killing herself with a gun that she then points at a sitting United States senator? Just another day in Sin City, where somehow even the potboilers are overbaked.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is as ugly, dumb, and stupid as Mickey Rourke’s Marv, who is apparently wearing some prosthetics, although it’s difficult to tell where Mickey’s warped mug ends and the special effects begin. The individual stories are empty, and collectively they add up to nothing.
A couple of the performers locate a sliver of something interesting. Boothe is best suited to the task as a fine actor who’s also spent his share of time in schlock. He possesses a hard-won ability to transcend camp that comes especially in handy here, and with his gravitas he towers over his costars. The other winner is Green, who injects just the right amount of self-awareness into her sneering turn as a black widow. Her nipples get more screentime than costar Bruce Willis, who acts like someone just woke him up from a long nap to do his scenes— although you could hardly blame anybody acting alongside Alba for dozing off.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.