When Sin City hit theaters in 2005, audiences hadn't seen anything like it. Movies based on comic books are common as weeds, but here was a movie that transplanted the entire aesthetic of Frank Miller's neo-noir series to the screen, stranding the live actors in a digital world created in post-production. With a black-and-white palette accented by splashes of color, it looked like moving artwork, and the style matched its lurid, pulp-novel storylines.
Nine years later, thanks to the one-two punch of Sin City and the surprise hit 300 (also based on Miller material), the film's aesthetic has become almost oppressively familiar. Represented by much of Zack Snyder's oeuvre, Immortals and this year's 300 sequel, the stylized unreality of "digital backlots" seems to be the model toward which all action spectaculars are inching, given their reliance on unfilmable scenes of mass destruction.
Into this changed world comes the belated Sin City sequel. It still looks pretty cool. But the luster has worn off, and the stories Miller tells this time around (now as writer and codirector with Robert Rodriguez) are so numbingly nihilistic, repetitive and dull that, for viewers who aren't hard-core fans, it's something of a chore to sit through.
Returning to the anthology format, the film tells four separate tales set in the moral cesspit of Basin City, some occurring before the events of Sin City and some after. A hulking thug with a "condition" (Mickey Rourke) struggles to recall how he woke up surrounded by corpses. A young gambler who never seems to lose (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) takes on the all-powerful Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). Private dick Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) answers a call from a damsel in distress (Eva Green) with whom he has a history. And exotic dancer Nancy (Jessica Alba) thinks a lot about avenging her slain cop protector (Bruce Willis) while swigging vodka and waving a gun.
All these stories end pretty much the same way: with copious spilling of blood (there's plenty in the middle, too). The motifs and the voiceovers may be noir-inspired, but Miller has pumped up the genre's violence until its nuances disappear. This is a video-game version of noir where superhuman bodies take massive amounts of punishment, and ninja hookers save the day. Brolin's world-weary-detective voiceover is so cheesy ("It was a night for doing sweaty, secret things...") that it profanes the memory of Raymond Chandler's genuinely inventive prose.
Brolin's character also profanes the memory of every fictional detective who ever fell for a femme fatale by failing to note warning signs that would be clear to a toddler. Granted, a toddler wouldn't be distracted by the charms of Green, who slithers around naked in roughly half her scenes. But it's tough for viewers to invest interest, let alone empathy, in characters as patently numbskulled and self-destructive as the protagonists of these tales, all of whom move on brutishly short downward spirals. The only members of the stellar cast who come out looking good are those who play conniving villains; Boothe and Green rule the movie, their eyes digitally lit with a diabolical glow.
Classic noir is gritty and misanthropic, yes, but it's the misanthropy of artists who are still interested in human beings and their stories. (The typical detective protagonist is a keen, witty observer of human behavior.) Judging by this film, its creators are currently more interested in replaying certain dehumanizing scenarios of sex and violence with depressing regularity — and with very little humor or self-awareness.
With creative inertia reinforcing the effects of over-familiarity, A Dame to Kill For seems unlikely to give audiences the jolt that Sin City did. Those who crave more of the first film's style will get it, but those who seek substance will find that Miller's truly is a town without pity.