Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For / *** (2014)

In the weeks leading up to the release of “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” Frank Miller’s nourishing cityscape of shadows and corruption weighed heavily in my thoughts. Over nine years had passed since Robert Rodriguez took us through our first outing of Basin City, and yet the visual – and narrative – impulses seemed as fresh in the current moment as they had been all that time ago, when they might have still been seen as distinctive. What gave them that edge was more than just a breathtaking sense of space and dreaminess in the images; they were compelled by an undercurrent, a chutzpah, to use the camera frame as a prison for an ensemble of characters driven beyond the limits of acceptable human behavior. The notion that their seedy antics were executed in a movie with astounding artistic sensibilities was little more than a bonus, and over the years many of us have revisited those damp streets and violent characters in unending awe of the material: marveled by the film’s evocative look and endlessly fascinated by the faces of those who dwell within them. They are, at the core, complex madmen who are only beginning to divulge their dangerous riddles.

To call the first “Sin City” a wonderful film would have been understating the obvious; it was slick and visionary, and so perfectly executed that we drank in its endless array of details like fresh water from a new spring. Nearly a decade has passed between that and this, the long-awaited follow-up, and a handful of those certainties remain prevalent. Rodriguez, who returns to co-direct the material with Miller (the author of the graphic novels), has clearly not lost sight of the technical prowess that possessed him in the earlier outing. So, too, has Miller remained true to the nature of his premise, which is to fill the screen with identities that have missed a few lessons in the value of integrity. And yet as effective as the movie is in aligning all of those noteworthy qualities, our response this time is, alas, one of muted enthusiasm. What happened? Are we desensitized from the harsh nature of Basin City and its crime-filled interiors? Does the material aim lower? Are the narrative loops less realized, less cohesive? The answer may just come down to intention. Rodriguez and Miller are overwhelmed here by a sense of conceit that undermines the film’s ability to pull the stories into an effective rhythm, leaving us with a sense that we are getting a collection of leftover arcs rather than a full-fledged chronicle able to stand on its own. This is one of those sequels that is probably a better film when absorbed within the frame of reference of its predecessor, but as a separate entity it is sometimes detached and confusing, and made all the more obvious by actors who appear on the screen not as embodiments, but as if they are playing elaborate dress-up at a film noir costume party.

Those notions hardly drop the end result past the point of passable entertainment, however. Utilizing the episodic approach of its predecessor – an impulse necessitated by the fact that the “Sin City” graphic novels were all isolated yarns, I imagine – the movie takes us back into the black-and-white thrushes of Basin City on the eve of a brewing storm: an attempt on the life of Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). As the overreaching hand of influence that seemed to decay the moral code of anyone in the sphere of his power throughout the first picture, Roark takes on primary importance in two of the three stories here – in one as a villain being challenged by an audacious street gambler (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and in the other as a target of vengeance on part of the angry and determined Nancy (Jessica Alba). She, you may recall, was only just a youngster when her life was threatened by a child rapist in the first movie, and after being saved in the 11th hour by a cop named Hartigan (Bruce Willis), she would spend her adulthood living a secret life as an upscale bar stripper. A final confrontation between her would-be predator and her trustworthy friend would utlimately result in the death of both, but Nancy has not forgotten the wounds. Nor, for that matter, has she forgotten Hartigan, who haunts her daydreams like the last voice of reasoning in a life consumed by revenge. And because Roark is the approving father of her predator, that puts him in the center of her crosshairs.

Meanwhile, we meet Dwight (Josh Brolin), a freelance street photographer who, in the early scenes, stops the murder of a local politician’s mistress after shooting pictures of them in the act. He is stirred to consciousness from a life filled with deadened gazes after his former girlfriend, the fetching Ava (Eva Green), reappears to him. Some sort of betrayal has destroyed Dwight’s trust of her, but pleas of warning (and the presence of a very menacing bodyguard) suggest that she may be in over her head on… who knows? The point for him is not nearly as much about details as it is the fact that she turned to him a brief moment of desperation. And despite his lack of trust, her presence intoxicates him to the point of misguided lust, and he investigates unwisely to discover what dangers lurk in her world. As the mystery deepens, the ensemble builds to involve several characters made famous in the original film, including Gail (Rosario Dawson), the leader of a band of violent hookers in Old Town, and Marv (Mickey Rourke), a sarcastic and brooding street thug whose moral code is basically limited to protecting gorgeous women.

All of this is presented in a fashion that remains perfectly in step with the core virtues of film noir; just as you learn about these creatures of the night through pointed monologues, their rough and almost ambivalent tones indicate the presence of personas that have lost the will to fight a nihilistic destiny. If the first movie found that sense of illumination firmly planted in the Marv character, then “A Dame to Kill For” turns its magnifying glass towards Johnny (Gordon-Levitt), who wanders into a smoky nightclub, runs a couple of slot machines and then takes his winnings into the back room of the bar, where Roark is playing a competitive game of poker. Unfortunately for Johnny, Roark hates to lose. He knows that. But he also has a skill that places him into unfortunate crosshairs by the embarrassed senator, and in the movie’s most tense scene, he has the young gambler’s fingers broken – and a bullet shot into his leg – as punishment for making him look like a fool. That in turns also leads to the most eccentric moment in the movie; Johnny seeks medical assistance at the home of an out-of-practice doctor who will do work for minimal charge, and the doctor, played by Christopher Lloyd, is such a random and off-the-wall interjection that his presence does the unthinkable: inspires laughing and shuddering all in the same two minutes.

That these kinds of memorable scenes exist is more than enough to find enjoyment out of this sequel, and the movie has all the fascinating spirit – and stylized violence – of its predecessor. But “Sin City” was more realized as a film and as a concept, whereas the follow-up is more about setups and poses without using them towards any sense of dynamic resolve. Even many of the new characters – like the enigmatic title vixen, Ava – seem to be taking up space rather than adding anything to the web of intrigue, and some of the newer actors have no commanding presence in context with Rourke or Boothe; they are models posing in the moment because it is, to them, the cool thing to do. I admired the Gordon-Levitt character for having the audacity that he did – and following through with it until the end – but Brolin is curiously frozen in a scowl of resentment, and is unable to provide it with any realistic reasoning. If narrative insights are what make Basin City so fascinating, then some of these new people have not made that realization in time before the camera tilts in their direction.

A word about timelines. If frustration was a dominant emotion in audiences of the first movie that were annoyed by the overlapping, non-linear approach of the stories, then “A Dame to Kill For” is likely to leave many in an even greater state of befuddlement. There are moments when there is such a deafening lack of consistency that, yes, even I was questioning the continuity. In one instance, the Alba character is haunted by an apparition of Hartigan (Willis), who died early on trying to keep her safe from the Yellow Bastard; yet in another scene, both Goldie and her twin sister (played by Jamie King) appear alive and well, despite the fact that one of them was murdered in the earlier film. The explanation? I don’t think there is one, unless you are well-versed in the source material. While the stories themselves are all isolated, and perhaps overlap one another with the intention of never bowing to the rules of chronology, they raise questions that don’t allow them to interlock effectively. Maybe Miller is suggesting that a place like Basin City is not bound by notions of time, I dunno. But never mind. “A Dame to Kill For” accomplishes what it sets out to do – that is, offer us another round of amusing action and unrelenting violence in a world bathed in the blood of its citizens – and maybe, in this era of thematic desaturation, that is all it really needs to be.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/Action/Thriller (US); 2014; Rated R for strong brutal stylized violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and brief drug use; Running Time: 102 Minutes

Mickey Rourke: Marv
Jessica Alba: Nancy
Josh Brolin: Dwight
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Johnny
Rosario Dawson: Gail
Bruce Willis: Hartigan
Eva Green: Ava
Powers Boothe: Senator Roark
Dennis Haysbert: Manute

Produced by Marina Bespalov, Sergei Bespalov, Oleg Boyko, Sam Englebardt, Marty P. Ewing, Adam Fields, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Jere Hausfater, Kia Jam, William D. Johnson, Aaron Kaufman, Stephen L’Herueux, Marc C. Manuel, Frank Miller, Kipp Nelson, Ted O’Neal, Tom Proper, Alexander Rodnyansky, Robert Rodriguez, Allyn Steward, Boris Teterev, Silenn Thomas, Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein; Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller; Written by Frank Miller, based on his graphic novels

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