Review — Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

BY NAT ALDER | AUGUST 28, 2014 5:00 AM

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It’s always kind of a touchy subject, when a childhood hero has disappointed you for so long that you consider re-evaluating his or her status as “great inspiration” or “person I look forward to hearing from."

To me, as a child cinephile, Robert Rodriguez was the stuff. Of course he did Spy Kids, which I loved, and Sharkboy and Lavagirl (which is the finest film about a boy who is a shark and a girl who shoots lava ever), but it was films like Once Upon a Time in Mexico or From Dusk Til Dawn that really got me amped. The movies were fun, bloody, action packed, and they had soul - there were jazzy characters that made you laugh and the music was unapologetically groovy. 

In 2005, Rodriguez unleashed Sin City, an ultra-violent, sexy, black-and-white-and-whatever-color-we-feel-like neo-noir. It was an assault to my (and many others’) senses. The film was praised by critics and hailed as a pioneering work in digital photography and visual effects. Only the cool, auteuristic Rodriguez could’ve straddled the line between jokey, gory pulp and crazy-detailed technical cinema.

Which is why, with quiet sadness, I exited the theater showing Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, nine years later,knowing that this may truly be the end of an era for someone who was once my hero.

I do not outright hate this film. It gets a lot right, actually. For one, the almost-decade it took for the sequel to get made allowed for growth in the style and technology of the filmmaking Rodriguez helped cement years ago. As a result, the film looks gorgeous. The black and white tapestry looks closer to the cells of Frank Miller’s graphic novel series (of which the films are based; Miller co-directs as well but the cinematic approach to his original novels is all Rodriguez) than ever.

Every actor and practical prop blends in extremely well to the computer generated backgrounds, the limited yet bold color palette lends well to the dark, gritty stories at hand. Most of the performers here are returning players and fit in well with the Sin City universe, and same goes with some of the new additions to the cast - Josh Brolin belongs in this world, Joseph Gordon Levitt brings a fresh perspective to the film playing a younger male with some serious naivete  - though some new cast members, like Jeremy Piven or Christopher Meloni or Ray Liotta, have no idea what film they are supposed to be in, and the less said about them, the better.

What this film lacks is that classic Rodriguez soul. The aesthetic is there, but the content seems stagnant at best. The film appears like a formula, or a check-list: make it look cool, make it have bloody violence, have all the original cast come back, adapt from same source material. It’s that easy! Or so Mr. Rodriguez and co-director Miller thought.

But there’s no spirit, no excitement (returning cast member Mickey Rourke once said he would never do a sequel, I more than suspect this to be a paycheck gig for many of the reprising players here), no sense of discovery. More importantly, no Clive Owen, who could’ve popped up for an interesting cameo at the very least.  It’s this lack of chutzpah, of panache, that makes A Dame to Kill For feel like a dead man walking. Even the anthology-style story emulating the first film feels like it adds up to nothing more than a pilot for a SyFy series, throwing a few references back to the original film as if to say, “Hey guys, remember what happened back then? That was cool, right? But this is cool too, right?”

And it’s this kind of non-verbal rhetoric that frustrates and disappoints me so about my old inspiration Rodriguez, who after a string of misfires (Shorts, Machete, Machete Kills, Spy Kids 4D) seems to have completely given in to pandering to fan anticipation, just without any conviction.

Hopefully I’m wrong, and Rodriguez can come up with something as fresh and magnetic as the first Sin City without sacrificing any story or character like the second one did. Or perhaps this limp, DOA sequel is an indication that Rodriguez, maybe the John Carpenter of our generation, is fading into boring-director-obscurity. Either way I’m quite shaken—it seems I’ve lost another hero this month.

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