A Year of Unlimited #5 – Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

This is the fifth in a series of blogs I’ve called “A Year of Unlimited”, which isn’t perhaps the catchiest way to put it, but encapsulates my attempts to blog about every film I see while I’m signed up to the Unlimited service. I’m not linking to every one, so go and find them yourselves!

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is much like its predecessor, even down to a lot of the same cast, and as before is based on graphic novels/comic books/whatever you want to call them by author Frank Miller, who also created 300 and a host of influential Batman stories (he also assisted in the direction of this film, as both he and Tarantino did with the first). Mashing together the monochrome and pulp-lite stylings of film noir with a vigilante-esque, heavily adult angle, Sin City was a successful and brutal film taking viewers to the darkest side of the comic book movie in 2005, and I for one loved it for being different: for being transgressive and unafraid to tackle some grim subjects in a grim style.

The sequel brings back Mickey Rourke’s man-mountain superhero with a conscience, Marv, alongside Jessica Alba’s vengeful stripper Nancy and a host of cameos or bit-parts for other characters from the first film – most noteworthy of these being Powers Boothe (what a name) as the delightfully bastardly Senator Roarke. The story works in much the same way as the first – different chapters not necessarily following in chronological order, in which our characters face up to the grim realities of life in the worst city imaginable.

A number of newer, more “hot right now” actors and actresses take up new roles in Sin City this time, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a gambler who just doesn’t know when to stop; Josh Brolin as a pre-facelift Clive Owen (the character’s name is Dwight, and Owen played him in the first film); and most interestingly, Eva Green as the ultimate femme fatale, Ava Lord.

As before, director Robert Rodriguez’s green-screen-only approach to making this film gives it a style and character all of its own, with the stark monochrome colour scheme rarely but impressively broken by blasts of colour, adding to the noir-like atmosphere. And the violence, gore, nudity, sex and swearing set the movie apart, as its predecessor did, from Marvel and DC’s child-friendly heroes and villains.

Performance-wise, both Rourke and Brolin give good grit in actions and voiceovers (the bass was quite something in the cinema), with Rourke managing to engage even through a face-full of prosthetics, and Brolin bringing some actual acting to the film. Gordon-Levitt in turn is carving a niche as the cocksure young man with a steely interior, whilst Bruce Willis turns up for just about long enough to remind us he was in the first one and that it was the best thing he’d done for a long, long time. Cameo turns from incredibly random actors kept taking me slightly out of the film, such was my surprise: more or less in order, my thought process went: “Ray Liotta? Christopher Meloni?! Jeremy Piven?!? Mike Novik and President Palmer from 24?!?!? CHRISTOPHER LLOYD??!” By the time Lady Gaga turned up in her own bizarre cameo, I felt anything could happen.

Anyway – you can’t really talk about Sin City: A Dame to Kill For without touching on the portrayal of women, for better or for worse. The film’s initial poster was banned in the US for showing Eva Green’s nipples in silhouette, which gives you an indication of what to expect in the film. Every female other than her is a prostitute or stripper – every other character. And for many people, that’s not great for a film in 2014, when misogyny is inexorably rising and when there should probably be a lot more said and done about the portrayal of women in the media.

However, whilst Green’s Ava Lord is very often seen naked, topless or in a state of preparing to be one of the two, the character is for me the best part of the film. Ava is both conniving and seductive; and unlike the male characters in both films, who are often seen physically attacking women or attempting to rape them, Lord holds power over every single man she encounters. The tables are somewhat turned.

The culmination to her story is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film other than the continued career of Jessica Alba (more on that in a second). Green is so good that she dominates the film, as she should with her character being the eponymous “dame”. And whilst sex, feminine “wiles” and good old-fashioned seduction are her weapons, it’s quite refreshing seeing a woman so thoroughly without need of being rescued.

It speaks volumes that Alba is front-and-centre here, particularly considering my views on her and her character
It speaks volumes that Alba is front-and-centre here, particularly considering my views on her and her character

Unfortunately, the rest of the female characters are either cyphers, stereotypes or, in the case of Jessica Alba’s Nancy, just terrible. Alba suffers so dramatically in comparison with Green that you feel sorry for her: her story is the only one connected to the first film, but the only good thing about it is the chance to see Rourke’s Marv one last time and enjoy more moustache-twirling from Powers Boothe.

Alba’s acting abilities are really not existent in any sense I recognise, and she’s almost upstaged by mostly cameos from the prostitutes of Old Town, who are more one-note than most (it’s like Miller’s been told his writing is misogynistic, so he makes the prostitutes more dangerous than the police whilst still wearing sweet-FA, missing the point entirely). Rosario Dawson is much better in other movies than as head-prostitute Gail (a hilariously prosaic name compared to Goldie, Miho, and and her other exotic friends), and she has so little to do here that I’m amazed she decided to come back.

I had enjoyed the other storylines so much that Alba’s plot, taking up the end of the film, killed its momentum dead. I like to use the phrase “charisma black hole”, and Jessica Alba epitomises this – she reads lines, but you don’t feel she’s the character. She’s supposed to be suicidal, vengeful and desperate, but it comes across as slightly miffed and put-out, though I suppose that her character does not interact with many others, and I appreciate that probably affects the way she comes across.

One final word has to go to Boothe, who was basically born to play evil, slimy bastards onscreen, and his Senator Roarke is just pure malevolence. Another of the characters to return from the first film, his status as one of the only truly irredeemable characters in these stories gives the film a proper villain alongside Green’s slippery, icy Ava. He’s just such a git – and the adult material means it isn’t just the case of a nasty man being a bit nasty. He’s a sick, twisted man drunk with power, and I feel that it’s only in these more adult films that you really can find these sort of interestingly foul “bad guys”.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For isn’t really anywhere near as good as the first film, but for a sequel released nine years after the original, it was fairly good, and I’d recommend it if you enjoyed the first, if only because it offers a rare mix of old film style, modern cinematic design, uncompromising violence and pulp fiction (the genre, not the Tarantino film).

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