Monday, September 15, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Alternate Title:  Miller Time

One sentence synopsis:  Three tales of betrayal, sin, and revenge intertwine within a stylized noir city.

Things Havoc liked: I adored the original Sin City, 2005's sordid, stylized tale of cops and dames and hoods and giant, lumbering psychotics doling out bloody retribution to a host of worthy targets. It was gritty and uncompromising, striking and bold in style and horrifically violent in execution, and while it was something of a mess at points, I was, and remain, convinced that it was a beautiful mess, buttressed by the many, many fine actors who joined its cast, and I enjoyed it considerably more than I expected I would. I knew that the film was based on a series of comic books that legendary graphic novelist Frank Miller created in the early 90s, and I wondered, then and as the years went by, when we might see another installment.

They say that good things come to those who wait. Nine years after their first success, Miller and director Robert Rodriguez have come together to give us more violence, more stylization, and more noir, with a fresh set of adventures in the eponymous Sin City. With much of the original cast returning, and those not being replaced by actors of equal skill, I had high hopes for this one.

Let's start with the positives then, shall we?

A Dame to Kill for, like Sin City before it, is a masterpiece of style and cinematic artistry. The trademark black-and-white-and-color-burst palate is still intact here, complete with gorgeous shots of such mundane things as the light reflecting in the lenses of someone's glasses, or a skylight casting a pool of illumination down on someone's bed. The sax-heavy score, also by Rodriguez casts exactly the right tone as well, a pastiche of hard-boiled noir detective and crime stories from the 30s through the 50s, the sorts of things that Dashiell Hammett and his imitators might have imagined after an all-night bender. Through the relentless voiceover narration, a staple of noir from German Expressionism to Max Payne, we get a sense of a massive, sprawling city, each corner of which contains its dirty secrets, where heroes and villains are much of the same, and people flow through one another's stories with impunity and total disregard for such things as a reasonable continuity. Combined with the Pulp Fiction-like temporal dislocation, the film obtains an almost timeless, ethereal feel to it, much as the first one did, as the narratives wind around one another, coming into and out of focus before moving on to another, unrelated tale.

Based on a fresh series of stories, both from the original 90s run and new material created specially for the movie by Miller himself, A Dame to Kill for, as I mentioned, uses a combination of new and old actors for its purposes. Many of these are excellent, such as small roles for Ray Liotta and Christopher Meloni, as respectively a businessman and a cop undone by their irresistible attraction to one of the many dangerous dames to be found in the city. Dennis Haysbert, filling in for the late Michael Clarke Duncan, evokes casual menace with the same facility that his predecessor did. But one of the standouts is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor I've finally decided I was wrong about and embraced, and who here plays Johnny, a young gambler and cardsharp who manages to get himself in a heap of trouble with returning arch-villain Senator Roarke, played as before by the inimitable Powers Boothe. Boothe's role is substantially increased this time 'round, an excellent decision as it allows him to do what he does best, play a snarling, growling villain of ferocious presence, a perfect match for the cast of over-the-top characters that surround him. I've been an immense fan of Boothe's since 1993's underrated Tombstone. The same can't be said of Gordon-Levitt, but his character, a cocky smart-ass who gets in way over his head, also strikes just the right cord. A dextrous, preternaturally-lucky gambler, he and his story of hubris and revenge fit into the overall look and feel of Sin City like a hand in a glove, to the point where this story could easily have come from the original film.

Things Havoc disliked: The rest of it, though...

I had some sense that something like this might happen, as this project was the lovechild of Miller and Rodriguez, neither one of whom has had a particularly good run of things lately. Miller, who was always something of a fringe character in comics, has spent the last two decades going progressively more insane (Holy Terror and All Star Batman & Robin proved that much), while Rodriguez, once a fiery young director who created such brilliant blood operas as El Mariachi, Desperado, or the gleefully schlocky From Dusk Till Dawn (to say nothing of the original Sin City), has recently gotten into the habit of badly aping his own material in disasters as varied as Machete Kills, the endless parade of Spy Kids sequels, or, it must be said, here.

Indeed, the parallels to Machete 2 are disturbing here (as they are to Miller's 300: Rise of an Empire, but that's another story), and not simply because this is another movie with over-the-top violence. Rodriguez is a director with no sense of restraint, it's something I've always admired from him, but that lack can only be justified if combined with the skill to pull off the absurdities you choose to put on screen, and while Rodriguez used to have that skill, I'm becoming increasingly hard-pressed to find it. Like with Machete 2, wherein he somehow got the idea that the popularity of his first film was due to its plot, Rodriguez seems to have missed, somehow, what it was about the first Sin City that made it so popular. It wasn't because we were engrossed in the labyrinthine plot (or rather plots), but because of the style and the characters that he populated his world with. And while Rodriguez does make an attempt to conjure lightning a second time for this installment, the results are simply not up to par.

Consider Eva Green, who is fast becoming my favorite actress in otherwise bad movies (Rise of an Empire again). Her character, Ava Lord (word to the wise, never name a character after the actor playing them, it's distracting), is a femme fatale who manipulates and discards men like a spider devouring her mates. Good idea in theory, and yet Green is allowed to play the character so far over the top that even Sin City's stylized format can't handle it. Sin City worked, despite wooden dialogue, because the stiffness of the characters fit in perfectly with the style of the film. Green seems to be constantly winking at the audience, as though acknowledging that her character makes no sense, which of course means that it does not, and that we don't have the attractive pull of the world at large to cover for it.

Green isn't the only one. Josh Brolin, reprising a role originally played by Clive Owen, is simply not up to the task of emulating his predecessor. Owen's character looked and felt special, a noble killer who partnered with the heavily-armed whores of Old Town to destroy corrupt cops and mobsters out of principle. Brolin feels all wrong for this task, a tired, old, weatherbeaten paparazzo who gets roped into a situation far beyond his control. Not a problem were the character a new one, but not only is this supposedly a returning character, but his story is heavily tied into the original. So is Jessica Alba, whose damsel-in-distress is elevated this time around to a booze-soaked killer, seeking to revenge herself and Bruce Willis' deceased Sgt. Hartigan on the aforementioned Senator Roarke. The issue here is that Jessica Alba is incapable of taking on a role like this, something Rodriguez was unaware of in Machete and remains unaware of here. But the worst of it is Marv, the centerpiece of the original film, played to absolute perfection by a barely-recognizable Mickey Roarke. Marv was a fascination in the first film, an unstoppable, psychotic murder-machine, whose internal monologue revealed depth, vulnerability, and unbending self-awareness as he tried to do what he thought was right in a world of violence and sleaze. He's here in this movie, as unflappable as he was in the previous one, but as a side character, he gets no internal monologue, no insight into his motivations or character. We only see the exterior, which is that of a comic book pastiche of a hero, invincible and wisecracking, denying us everything that made the character unique and interesting in the first place. This is a catastrophically bad decision, one which robs the original film's most memorable creation of its nuance, leading me, once again, to wonder if Rodriguez even understood what he was doing in the first place.

Final thoughts:   Looking back at A Dame to Kill for, I am left with the question of why? Why was this movie made? I know the literal answer (to make money), and that's fine, but I mean the artistic one, which must exist, even if alongside the financial one, for any movie to be good. The first film existed to be awesome and stylish, which is its own justification, but this movie exists because... because the first one did, I guess. Unfortunately, neither Rodriguez nor Miller, at this point in their careers, are up to the task of making something as great as their original film, Rodriguez because he has lost the plot, and Miller because his latent tendencies towards angry misogyny (not an accusation I make lightly) have been getting the best of him for more than a decade. It's no co-incidence, I suspect, that none of the characters I liked in this film are female, not even Rosario Dawson's Gail, a valkyrie mother-hen/warleader in the first film, reduced here to stripperific eye candy.

But I'm not here to heap yet more scorn on the already marginalized Frank Miller. I'm here to review a film based on his work. And that film, I'm sad to report, is simply not as good as its predecessor, not by a wide margin. Flashes of the original shine through, in the style, in the tone, in a handful of scenes or characters who retain the sensibilities of the first film. But by and large, those of us who appreciated the original Sin City are reduced to watching the antics of characters that resemble those we remember, but are not them.

Perhaps, expectations and memories being what they are, you can simply never go back to something like Sin City. But in that case, it might behoove someone to warn Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller before they decide to try their luck at re-inventing another one of their classics from long ago. Trust me, the world does not need a Planet Terror 2.

Final Score:  5.5/10

No comments:

Post a Comment

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

Let's get back into the swing of things, shall we? The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup Ant-Man and the Wasp Alternate Ti...