It's been nearly a decade since Robert Rodriguez's stylish adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City comic book series shook up the megaplexes with a darkly humorous brand of pseudo-noir. Unfortunately, the long-awaited sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill doesn't prove to be worth the wait. Whereas the first film was kitschy, ambitious schlock, its sequel is a monotonous, shallow, parody of its predecessor.
Rodriguez and Miller play up the nihilism, misogyny, sadism, and flashy visuals at the expense of coherence. True, the first Sin City was disjointed too, but at least most of its parts added up to something; its progeny is content to run around in circles until it exhausts itself.
Like the first film, A Dame to Kill For is comprised of a series of interlocking vignettes: A pre-title has unbalanced thug Marv (Mickey Rourke) waking up in media res of a bloody debacle with no memory of how he got there. That thread is quickly dropped in favor of the title story, a sporadically entertaining tale featuring Josh Brolin as Dwight McCarthy (played by Clive Owen in the previous installment), who gets sucked into a web of deceit and murder by former flame Ava Lord (Eva Green as a femme so fatale she makes Phyllis Dietrichson look like Gidget).
"The Long Bad Night", the first of two stories written for the movie rather than drawn directly from the comic book series, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a charmed gambler who runs afoul of Sin City's resident crooked politician, Senator Roark (an impressively sadistic Powers Boothe). The final and least satisfying chapter, "Nancy's Last Dance", picks up after the events "That Yellow Bastard" and finds stripper Nancy Callahan taking refuge in the bottle and literally haunted by the ghost of the cop who saved her life (Bruce Willis).
As with the other film, A Dame to Kill For makes you use of a non-linear style and dove-tailing narratives. The conceit works against the material in this instance; it's not executed smoothly, and the fact that vignettes are all sequels or prequels throws a lot of extraneous detail into some already cluttered stories. (The re-casting of a few of the roles also adds to the confusion.) Ironically, it's the two stories written specifically for the film - and the two with which the filmmakers had the most creative leeway - that are the weakest.
Green is the one who keeps the thing interesting, vamping it up and injecting a little humor into an otherwise relentlessly grim movie. Rourke also provides a welcome release as Marv, the enjoyably cynical psychopath who's always happy to kill a few guys for the sake of a friend. Gordon-Levitt projects a bit of hope and optimism (which never last long in this town), and it's too bad the film makes short use of his talents.
Most of the other performers fare less well, especially Alba, whose screen time consists primarily of repetitive bump-and-grind scenes until her turn in the spotlight when she's saddled with repetitive scenes of binge-drinking, impotent pistol waving, and rambling conversations with Willis (giving one of his best "I'm only here for the paycheck" performances) leading up to a less-than-cathartic climax.
All of this is buried under a monotonous layer of half-assed narration from at least six different characters. It doesn't help any of them that many of their scenes were often filmed solo on a soundstage with a green screen and their co-stars were inserted later - creating a canned feel with a lack of spontaneity that shows in their performances.
The first Sin City movie was rough around the edges, but not without reason: It adapted a niche comic book directly from the page to the screen, with Rodriguez using the comics as scripts and storyboards, and employed a risky visual style. The approach didn't always work - the dialogue, shot compositions, and editing were often clunky - but the flaws only added to its gleeful, surreal anarchy. It was raw and startling and well-timed. A Dame to Kill For is buried under its flaws, however. At least it looks cool, though.