Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (4/5)

At this point everyone hates Frank Miller.  You hate Frank Miller.  I hate Frank Miller.  All your friends hate Frank Miller.  Your grandmother, if she knows who he is, probably hates Frank Miller too.  After many years of contributing to the development of American comic books, Miller’s talent and credibility hit a serious wall sometime in the 21st century.  His output has been so bad that people have started to wonder whether or not he was ever talented.  To top it all off, in addition to putting out lazily written drivel, he also released a bizarre anti-Occupy Wall Street rant that fully revealed his inner neocon.  Miller’s politics were never exactly subtle—in fact, if one of his characters came upon nuance, he would have likely socked it in the jaw—but there was a certain complexity to his political positions, which often camped out somewhere in the borderlands where liberals and libertarians have achieved an uneasy truce.  So judging merely by Miller’s involvement, there was little reason to be optimistic about a long delayed sequel to the original Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller collaboration, Sin City.

But, surprisingly, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For has turned out to be a worthy sequel to the stylish and brutal original.  Despite the diminishing quality of both Miller and Rodriguez’s work in recent years, there must be something about working together that brings out the best in both artists.  Like the first movie, A Dame to Kill For is split into several distinct but vaguely interrelated tales.  Two of the film’s stories, the eponymous “A Dame to Kill For” and “Just Another Saturday Night,” are taken straight from Miller’s funny books where the other two, “The Long Bad Night” and “Nancy’s Last Dance,” were written by Miller exclusively for the film. The events of Dame occur before and after the events of the first film, making it a sort of pre-sequel and allowing Miller and Rodriguez to resurrect fan favorite characters like Marv.

“Just Another Saturday Night” is little more than a cynical smirk of a story that serves to set the stage for the rest.  The film’s meatiest tale is the titular “Dame to Kill For.”  Taking over for Clive Owen, Josh Brolin plays Dwight who gets pulled back into a world of seduction and double crosses by his old flame, Ava.  Played by Eva Green in various stages of undress (she’s French), Ava is the femme fatale turned up to eleven.  Able to transform herself into varying female archetypes so she fits the desires of any single man, Ava is a consummate manipulator. 
The femme fatale standard is highly problematic, but in certain films she has been made to symbolize female agency within a patriarchal world.  It would be difficult to redeem Ava, and there’s no confusing the writing of Frank Miller for a feminist treatise, but I’m not quite willing to call Miller an outright misogynist.  (Perhaps Ava’s ability to transform herself is a critique of the kinds of boxes men wish to box women into?)  And to complicate matters somewhat, A Dame to Kill For brings back the women of Old Town, an area of Sin City controlled and policed by its resident prostitutes.  If anything, A Dame to Kill For arguably tests the limits of third-wave feminism.

The two stories written specifically for Dame feel a little trim compared to those first written for the page.  In the first Sin City, there was a sense that each individual yarn could have been expanded into its own film, which is not the case in the sequel.  “The Long Bad Night” follows the preternaturally lucky Johnny (Joseph Gordon Levitt) as he weasels his way into a high stakes card game and makes enemies of the unrelenting big bad, Senator Roarke (played with gusto once again by Powers Boothe).  I naturally love the noir inspired irony that for someone with unerring luck, Johnny still has a horrendous time in Sin City.  (I also thoroughly enjoyed the scene stealing cameo from Christopher Lloyd.)  By contrast, “Nancy’s Last Dance,” a more direct sequel to the first film, suffers somewhat.  The story of Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) and her attempt to avenge the death of police officer and her savior, John Hartigan, played once again by Bruce Willis, only this time, well, dead, seems too undercooked to have much of an impact. 

If A Dame to Kill For lacks some of the more memorable elements of the original—a dead Benecio Del Toro speaking from the grave while part of a gun sticks out from his head or Elijah Wood’s trophy room—each story seems to slide into the next more easily for a more cohesive whole.  Plenty of critics have claimed the film has come too late and audiences are used to its box of tricks by now.  I impolitely disagree.  Dame may not be as good as the first film, but I think it injects something much needed into today’s genre of comic book movies: a sense of visual experimentation. 

Here Rodriguez expands on what he accomplished in the original film, mixing in metaphorical images of a tiny Johnny sliced apart by Rourke or staging a car chase around Marv’s head as he remembers what happened earlier in the night.  If anything, today’s comic book films are far more conservative visually then they were a decade ago or more ago.  Marvel, the most financially successful maker of comic book films, appears to be uninterested in fusing the distinct visuals of film and comic books lest it muss up their plans for franchise domination.  (I wouldn’t be surprised if this was part of the reason for the departure of Edgar Wright, a unique visual stylist, from Ant Man).  Compare the relatively safe imagery of the Marvel films to the hyperkinetic camera movement of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, or the disorienting use or split screen in Ang Lee’s Hulk, or, to stretch back farther, the infusion of German Expressionism into Tim Burton’s Batman films.  Hell, even the now forgotten 90s superhero film The Shadow has some wonderfully bizarre imagery that would be deemed too out there in 2014.  I’m a fan of Marvel’s movies, but I’m also somewhat nostalgic for that period of time in the aughts when comic books were providing a new template for what was possible in Hollywood films.  In 2005, the original Sin City seemed like the culmination of a series of experiments, but in 2014, A Dame to Kill For seems wholly singular.  

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