Monday, August 25, 2014

In Theaters: SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014)

(US/Russia/France/UK - 2014)

Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller. Written by Frank Miller. Cast: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Stacy Keach, Jaime King, Christopher Lloyd, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Meloni, Juno Temple, Lady Gaga, Marton Csokas, Julia Garner, Alexa PenaVega, Jude Ciccolella, Johnny Reno. (R, 102 mins)

When the Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller collaboration SIN CITY was released in 2005, it was hailed as a groundbreaking visual triumph and a trendsetting example of how to adapt a graphic novel--in this case, Miller's legendary series--to the big screen. Nine years later, it holds up beautifully in terms of visuals and its very effective use of CGI, as well as with its loving tribute to the gutsy, hard-boiled prose of a bygone era. While the success of SIN CITY paved the way for other successful graphic novel adaptations like Zack Snyder's 300 (2007), its style is the kind of thing that can't really be repeated without feeling like a tired retread. Look no further than Miller's own disastrous solo directorial outing THE SPIRIT (2008), an excruciatingly awful adaptation of Will Eisner's graphic novel series that came off like a cheap, amateurish ripoff of SIN CITY and was rejected by even the most ardent Miller fanboys. Shot in 2012 and bumped nearly a year from its original October 2013 release date, the belated prequel/sequel combo SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR wasn't really warranted or demanded, and, this far removed from the first film, can't help but pale in comparison to what was so fresh and innovative nearly a decade ago. Rodriguez and Miller seem to recognize that and try to counter it by using 3-D. It makes for some occasionally striking imagery, but remove that superfluous cosmetic addition and you've got a perfectly watchable but thoroughly disposable revamp that plays like a SIN CITY knockoff rather than a follow-up by the same filmmakers. It's almost like a rock band that knocked it out of the park with one instant classic album and followed it with a cash-in comprised of leftover songs that weren't strong enough to make the cut the first time around.

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR has four segments, only one of which, "A Dame to Kill For," is based on a published Miller work, while the others were written specifically for the film. The time element can be a bit confusing--sometimes it's set in the film's present, other times in the past, which explains the return of some characters killed off in the first film. Ex-boxer and 300-lb killing machine Marv (Mickey Rourke, whose character makeup combined with his own plastic surgery in the years since SIN CITY now have Marv looking like a roid-raging Lionel Stander) disposes of some douchebag college kids who get their kicks by setting bums on fire. Wiseass card sharp Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wins a bundle from evil Sen. Roark (Powers Boothe reprises his role) in a backroom card game and lives to regret it. In the longest section, based on "A Dame to Kill For," photographer Dwight (Josh Brolin, replacing Clive Owen), is duped by his femme fatale ex Ava (Eva Green) when she kills her husband (Marton Csokas) and tries to frame him. After being beaten to a pulp by Ava's bodyguard Manute (Dennis Haysbert, replacing the late Michael Clarke Duncan), Dwight teams up with Marv, old flame Gail (a returning Rosario Dawson) and silent assassin Miho (Jamie Chung, replacing Devon Aoki) to exact his revenge. Ava, meanwhile, seduces and manipulates honest cop Mort (Christopher Meloni), despite the warnings of his cynical partner Bob (Jeremy Piven, replacing Michael Madsen). Finally, stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba also returns) is watched over at the sleazy dive bar Kadie's by the ever-present Marv, but she's really waiting for the perfect opportunity to kill Roark, the father of the first film's vicious serial killer The Yellow Bastard. Roark made sure his son's heinous crimes were pinned on pushing-60-with-a-bum-ticker cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis reappears, barely), who was Nancy's guardian angel father figure and was driven to suicide after killing the Yellow Bastard and ensuring her safety.

While SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR has its reasonably entertaining moments and it's never dull, it can't help but feel stale and tired most of the time. Much like the slo-mo and the speed-ramping of 300 have made that the most tired cliche going, the SIN CITY look is something that can only blaze a trail once before everything that comes after is simply following in its path. Miller's writing isn't nearly as good this time around, with the tough-guy narration sounding like cheesy posturing, and there's an almost-total absence of great hard-boiled one-liners that filled the first film, like Hartigan's "When it comes to reassuring a traumatized 19-year-old, I'm as expert as a palsy victim doing brain surgery with a pipe wrench," or Marv, strapped in the electric chair bellowing "Would you get a move on? I ain't got all night!" to a prison chaplain issuing the last rites.

The film does feature some strong performances by a snarling Boothe and a vamping, typically crazy-eyed and frequently nude Green, who almost single-handedly made a must-see film out of 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE, another unnecessary sequel from earlier this year. There's a large cast of familiar faces here, but very few of them are put to any substantive use. Rourke and Willis were terrific back in 2005, but they're just clocking in for this one (it's easy to forget that, three years before THE WRESTLER, it was his performance in SIN CITY that started the now-squandered Rourkeassaince). Willis' Hartigan only appears fleetingly as a ghost. He has maybe two minutes of screen time and I'd be surprised if he was on the set for more than a day. An unrecognizable Stacy Keach, sporting some Jabba the Hutt-inspired makeup, gets about a minute as big shot mobster Wallenquist. Ray Liotta briefly appears as a philandering businessman in love with a young hooker (Juno Temple). Blink and you'll miss Christopher Lloyd as a drug-addicted, back-alley doc who helps reset Johnny's broken fingers. And Lady Gaga cruises through as a hash-slinging waitress at a skeezy all-night diner. With SIN CITY, even those actors in the smallest roles made an impression (remember Nicky Katt's hapless Stuka and his "Heeeey!" reaction to an arrow through the chest?) because that was a film made with care and precision, but here, they're just distractions (Lady Gaga?) popping into Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios in Austin for a cameo and a quick run by the craft services table, with their driver presumably leaving the limo running outside. Rodriguez, Miller, and the returning actors don't seem very engaged with the second-rate material that consequently fails to provide much in the way of inspiration for the new cast members. SIN CITY was budgeted at $40 million in 2005, still looks terrific and has aged beautifully.  SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR cost $70 million and, factoring out the use of 3-D, more often than not looks and feels like a slipshod, straight-to-DVD knockoff. I didn't hate SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR but unlike its predecessor, it's nothing I'll feel the need to watch again. If nothing else, I guess the best praise to bestow upon it is that it's a masterpiece compared to THE SPIRIT.

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