Bruce Willis’s John Hartigan appears as a ghost in only two or three scenes in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s sequel to Sin City, but it’s enough time to encapsulate the world Hartigan left by the end of the first film. As he watches Nancy (Jessica Alba) twist and gyrate on stage, he opines that there’s no difference between life and death in the titular world Miller envisioned in his series of graphic novels, and the film’s cynical view of heroes and villains nestles itself comfortably within that indifference. The intended result is a hyperbolic take on film noir, but its ubiquitous apathy toward death drains the film of any stakes, rendering this retread into a fruitless bacchanal of blood, bullets, and babes.
The film’s monochrome aesthetic underlines Hartigan’s statement, as the blacks and whites seem to blur into a sleek, gloomy gray, punctuated by splashes of color adorning the women of Sin City. As with the original film, color represents attraction and hope in this world, whether in the form of the pink fur hem on a negligee or the sparkling blue coat that Ava (Eva Green) dons in the brief occasions when she isn’t totally nude. Along with some intermittently clever use of 3D, it’s the only visual element of the film that sticks out amid all the weightless murder and sex, which is to say that the digital gimmickry that powered much of Rodriguez and Miller’s previous collaboration has lost its sheen almost completely with this second spin.
It’s Miller’s contributions, including the script, that stall the film out. His world is noir on steroids, which precludes the most memorable and crucial elements of the noir genre. There’s no danger, no patience, no true mystery to Miller’s world, which jumps between the barbed doings of bruisers like Dwight (Josh Brolin), Marv (Mickey Rourke), Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and, finally, Nancy, all of whom are after Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), Sin City’s absurdly corrupt head honcho. The script is overrun with talk and voiceover, and the directors rarely allow the atmosphere to speak for itself, as they’re constantly cutting to more rampant action. In a sense, the film is a mescaline-fueled parody of noir, but its creators have absolutely nothing to say about the genre it’s both mocking and clearly indebted to. Whereas a single, stinging one-liner would have sufficed Jacques Tourneur or Fritz Lang, Miller’s overcompensating flood of pulpy dialogue only renders his characters flat and sans empathy.
Of course, neither Miller nor Rodriguez seem to care much about anything other than the spectacle of big, bad dudes doing big, bad things. Even in these regards, however, A Dame to Kill For comes off as a cowardly and shallow approximation of dark, perverse material, a slapdash amalgamation of thoughtless genre tropes and brainless masculine fantasy. The only good guys in Miller’s world are those who’re willing to kill or maim without reason, and the women are prostitutes, strippers, or cuckolds to be used and disposed of at the will of these men. If there was a glimmer of criticism toward this disposition in Miller’s source material, it’s been washed out at this point. One can find flashes of inspired grimness in Green’s reliably rousing line readings, or Christopher Lloyd’s dope-shooting doctor, but there’s a clear hesitancy to all of this. Brolin’s Dwight worries about “letting the monster out,” and despite all of the violence that powers this showy, overextended assault, the film seems to be perpetually troubled by the same idea, to unleash madness and then take genuine stock of the horror and strangeness that ensues.