The original Sin City was a triumph on several levels. It was the only graphic novel adapted film in living memory to really capture and bring to life the artwork of its source material. It presented all of the conventions of noir as a cool style rather than coming off as campy. It was also simply a solid film with excellent direction, acting and writing. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For starts off with a suggestion that all of those fine qualities have survived the close-to-a-decade gap between films, but hope fades quickly and the film descends into the pitfalls that the first film so diligently avoided.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a prequel and sequel to the stories told in Sin City. We find out a little more about who Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) was and what he looked like before The Big Fat Kill. We see more of Marv (Mickey Rourke) and his penchant for violence before the events of The Hard Goodbye, but also after the events of That Yellow Bastard. Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), after the events of the same chapter, is also fleshed out when he’s confronted by a mysterious stranger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is intent on beating him at cards. Finally, Nancy Callahan’s story from That Yellow Bastard is also concluded. Along the way, old and new supporting characters like Gail (Rosario Dawson), Manute (Dennis Haysbert), Ava (Eva Green) and more make appearances of varying lengths to add to the separate storylines.
The film starts off great, with fan-favorite Marv essentially being resurrected by convenient prequel writing. “Metal screams,” his inner monologue growls against a backdrop of a slow-motion explosion, and the film assures audiences that there has been no time-loss for the filmmakers. They even go one step further by dazzling with ingenious visuals as Marv tries to remember the car chase he was just involved in, with tiny automobiles driving around him in midair. It’s beautiful and smart and disarming, lulling audiences into a false sense of security. Even the 3-D looks fantastic, with snow realistically falling in the foreground. Regrettably, everything mostly goes downhill from there.
Despite the excellent beginning, the visuals aren’t handled as well here as they were in the first film. While there are some obvious technological improvements, the filmmakers seem to have lost their touch for adapting stylized still images to moving scenes in a film. For instance, the glare on the lenses of glasses are stark white, and in the first film, shots with this effect were used sparingly and were over quickly to preserve the effect. In A Dame to Kill For the white glare is left on lenses for extended dialogue sequences, with actors moving their heads and while in moving vehicles. This results in the characters looking like they’re wearing sunglasses with white lenses, which is certainly unintended. There are other moments throughout where the black and white effects just aren’t used effectively or appropriately like they were in the original film. Even the practical visual effects, like Marv’s face, look inadvertently fake. The 3-D is also not worth paying the extra money for since it is used so sparingly after the opening credits. Some shots do look amazing, however, mostly involving Eva Green’s sumptuous form in a body of water. It’s in those scenes that it’s easy to see the panels of a graphic novel coming to life, but those moments are few and far between.
The presentation overall feels less deliberate and isn’t as focused as it should be. The previous film offered a clear delineation between its stories, making each chapter feel full and the characters seem larger and more important because of the separation. A Dame to Kill For is presented as more of a traditional film, with several plots intertwining, but not necessarily being relevant to each other. As a result, seemingly important characters are just blips on the screen despite having much more gravitas within the world of Sin City. And even if the characters have no clout within the story universe, they are at least thematically important, but they don’t feel that way when their screen time gets lost in the shuffle of plots.
Finally, there are glaring deficiencies in the writing and acting/directing. First, there are some anachronisms that are difficult to reconcile, like Nancy undergoing a drastic makeover that was not evident in the previous film. However, she interacts with Marv in both films, even though he dies in the first film. So to make the timeline work, Nancy would have to undergo the makeover and then revert to her old look all before Marv’s story ends in the first film. Another strange choice that seems unbelievable is Senator Roark decorating his home with portraits of his dead son as the Yellow Bastard instead of how he looked before his transformation. Second, either the actors didn’t know how to deliver their lines in ways that didn’t sound campy or they just weren’t directed enough. As it stands, many of the lines are spoken with as much depth as the dialogue in daytime soap operas.
All of this is to say that it’s a real shame that the final product turned out this way. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For had everything going for it: good source material, excellent actors, and popularity of a previous film to capitalize on. It just doesn’t come together here, resulting in a film that feels more like a direct-to-video companion piece rather than a true, satisfying sequel.