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Movie review: 'Sin City: A Dame to Kill For' can't match the original's pull

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For"-- 2 stars

After taking in "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," the second collaboration between legendary graphic novel creator Frank Miller and virtuoso technical filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, I feel like coining a new term. "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" is a "genre-buster," meaning that it is a film that pushes far beyond the boundaries of its generally assigned category. In my opinion, to be a genre-buster, you have to break the confinements of at least three genres. Two isn't enough. Two is an "action comedy," "romantic fantasy," or etc. and those are plain as day and too easy. You've got to mix three and do it well.

"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" and its 2005 predecessor combine more than three different genre's worth of elements and displays them to extremely heightened levels beyond the internal norms of each designation. On most people's comic book/graphic novel movie shelves, they have a collection of clean-cut superheroes, not the brutal, pulpy, booze-soaked, and scantily-clad array of characters from "Sin City." They make even something as dark as "The Crow" look like a little bird bath in a city park. The general definition of the film noir genre starts at a hard-boiled Humphrey Bogart type, some shadows, and the purveying smoke of cigarettes. Miller and Rodriguez lather those noir stylings as thick as Meryl Streep lays down accents and then coat it again with strikingly brutal violence. That explicit violence of the "Sin City" movies creeps into horror territory checking another genre box that gets busted.

The 2005 original was rightly heralded nine years ago as a technical marvel ahead of its time. Using breathtaking digital backlot filmmaking techniques (pre-dating the other big Miller film adaptation "300"), "Sin City" was one of the truest visual recreations of a comic or graphic novel source ever put to film. Rodriguez absolutely nailed Miller's black-and-white palette that was dashed with jolting splashes of color. He moved his camera with darting fluidity to make the homages to Miller's comic panels come to life and didn't skimp on the gory details of the "Sin City" story episodes. To top it all off, the inspired and star-studded casting was perfect from top to bottom in every role, large and small.

I must admit, nine years later, the effect of a returning "Sin City" is weakened. In today's 15-seconds-of-fame culture, the sequel revisits old success, but doesn't break any new ground. "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" feels like been-there/done-that because too much time has passed from it being unique. Thanks to the expanded use of digital backlot world creation in places like "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland," what was an inspired novelty then doesn't feel special anymore.

This second film primarily covers the second "Sin City" graphic novel bearing the film's title. Like the first film, sidebars and interconnecting stories blend together into loosely-connected episodes. The centerpiece is the "A Dame to Kill For" chapter that surrounds a femme fatale named Ava Lord (Eva Green) in a story that takes place a few years before the 2005 film's "A Big Fat Kill" episode. Using her *ahem* attributes and talents, she manipulates various men to do her bidding, with her top goal being acquiring her husband's wealth through his death. To put this in motion, she calls upon an old flame, private detective Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin, recast from Clive Owen in the first film), for help. Before long, the double-crosses pile up and murder is pinned on Dwight, putting him on the police investigation's radar (embodied by Jeremy Piven and Christopher Meloni). That also brings in his allies of the brutish Marv (headliner Mickey Rourke) and the Old Town prostitute assassins, led Gail (Rosario Dawson), another on-and-off-again lover, to settle the score.

Surrounding "A Dame to Kill For" are two new original stories written by Miller especially for the film that are not based on his previous graphic novel series. In "The Long Bad Night," Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a young hotshot gambler that outplays the corrupt local politician, Senator Roarke (returning professional movie villain Powers Boothe), and pays the price for crossing the boss. Roarke is also the targeted villain for the "Nancy's Last Dance" story taking place four years after "That Yellow Bastard" from the first film. This episode plots the much-desired revenge stripper Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) seeks for losing her lover and rescuer Hartigan (Bruce Willis). Nancy too seeks the help of Marv, building the necessary bridge to tie some of back-and-forth storytelling together.

A few large flaws keep "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" from being anywhere near as great as the 2005 franchise starter. First, the severe recasting of the Dwight character is a big detractor, one on the level with Don Cheadle replacing Terrance Howard in the "Iron Man" series. James Brolin cannot hold a noir candle to Clive Owen from 2005. Brolin is nowhere near as enigmatic as Owen and he needs to be this film's main protagonist for the centerpiece. They are too different and Brolin cannot handle that leading weight. You root for the femme fatale instead of the other way around because Brolin is just so bland next to Eva Green's diabolical act. He possesses zero of Owen's coolness. By the way, no shock here, but Green is really good at being the femme fatale, becoming another casting coup for Rodriguez's normally positive track record in that department. Brolin is the misstep that sticks out.

The second big flaw, at least for me, is the storytelling. While the central visionary is still Frank Miller himself and not a kitchen full of screenwriting cooks screwing up his ingredients, the new stories he created for the film lack the development and impact of the published pieces that made "Sin City" a cult classic graphic novel. The new tangents are style without substance compared to the first film's enormously rich backstories for Rourke's Marv and Willis's Hardigan. The two new stories in the sequel feel wasteful, ineffective, and weakly formed compared to the "A Dame to Kill For" segment. Try as he may, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a nice complimentary talent, but his story fails him. Jessica Alba has never been noted for her acting and her one-dimensional story chapter that closes the sequel falls flat too. Maybe Rodriguez and Miller saw the writing on the wall for that one and knew they had to infuse some Mickey Rourke to spark the wet kindling of that episode. It's too little too late.

Let it be said, though, that there is not a darn thing wrong with the signature visuals in "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For." The inspired comic recreation looks outstanding once again and the purposeful contrast levels are spot on to enhance the necessary atmosphere. As aforementioned, the noir feel is laid on nice and thick with all of the depravity you were hoping for. There's plenty of coolness and grit to envy and love. Because of how completely unique Rodriguez's and Miller's creation is, I don't mind the attempt to strike gold again. This was worth trying again and revisiting. It's too bad the substance couldn't keep up with the style this time around.

Lesson #1: Women drive men crazy-- I'm betting there's some uppity film critic somewhere that's going to complain about this movie's colossal amount of misogyny in casting every single female character in the film to be either a prostitute, killer, stripper, or perpetually naked trophy wife. Sorry to whoever's panties get in a bunch, but that's why "Sin City" is an extreme form of pulp fiction. This misogyny is intentional and, in the end, all of the women win anyway. Why? It's because any woman in the world, and especially in this fictional one, can drive a man crazy. They have will power and men don't. Miller knows that and wrote great parts. Every single one of these prostitutes, killers, and strippers has the upper hand on the men around them at every second.

Lesson #2: Avoid femme fatales-- Let's get more specific from Lesson #1. All women have ability to drive men crazy. One particular variety of woman is higher in that ability than most and that's the classic femme fatale. If she looks too good to be true and doesn't belong to you, avoid her. Trouble follows. Seduction is her weapon. If she tempts you and you know the act isn't right, you're the one that's going to suffer the consequences, not her. The female equivalent to this problem is the good girl that always falls for the "bad boy" and not the nice guy.

Lesson #3: What you live with is harder than what you die for-- I would be negligent if I didn't create a lesson out of one piece of the endless film noir tough talk that fills "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For." The voiceovers and monologues are plentiful and full of little lines and gems. With the fatalist nature of this seedy setting, I chose this one. I do see a way where the demons we choose to live with, the mistakes we've made, and the ramifications of our actions weighing more on our hearts and souls than the end game of death. To some, death is a release and life is the burden. The characters of "Sin City" are splintered, scarred, darkened, and burdened by the tough things they live with. Some of it is unbearable for them.

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