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Monday, June 15, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

Director: Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Jessica Alba, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Domestic Gross: $13,757,804

My feelings about the first Sin City were pretty much entirely negative, so there was basically a zero percent chance that I would respond favorably to Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, but, I'm also not the audience for this film, as I'm in the minority with respect to Frank Miller's slavering ode to hyper-masculinity. Given how passionate Sin City's fanbase remains, and in light of the fact that the original made $74 million at the domestic box office, one would think that even a nine years after the fact sequel would be greeted with more than the yawn that met Sin City 2, and which makes my negative reaction seem almost favorable in comparison, as long as you consider dislike a step up from indifference. So where does Sin City 2 go so wrong in terms of appeal? Oddly, it achieves it by giving both more and less than the original.

Like the first film, Sin City 2 is divided into several stories. The first, "Just Another Saturday Night," follows tough guy Marv (Mickey Rourke) as he hunts down and kills a quartet of frat boys who've been getting their kicks burning a homeless man alive. The second and fourth story is "The Long Bad Night" parts 1 and 2, which follows a gambler (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he goes up against one of Sin City's biggest baddies, Senator Rourke (Powers Boothe) and continuously finds himself brutally slapped down and punished for his attempts to best the powerful and sadistic man. The title story, "A Dame to Kill For," involves Dwight (played here by Josh Brolin, taking over from Clive Owen) and his on-again/off-again lover, Ava (Eva Green), who convinces him that she's being abused by her wealthy husband in order to provoke Dwight into killing him, making her a very rich woman. The final story is "Nancy's Last Dance," which revisits the series' only truly "good" and "pure" character, Nancy (Jessica Alba), as she continues to mourn John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) and plots revenge against Senator Rourke. As with the first film, each segment is built on a solid foundation of violence, misogyny, and laughably overblown machismo.

Like most sequels, Sin City 2 gives you more of what the original had to offer: more violence, more exposed female flesh, and somehow a darker and more brutal view of women. This sequel also, however, gives you less than the original in that its visuals, while very occasionally stunning, seem less innovative and sometimes just look cheap, which lends the film a "budget" feeling that the cast turnover doesn't help. While the original cast was loaded with established and emerging (and, in Rourke's case, resurrected) talent, the sequel features the return of a Rourke who has returned to the wilderness of bad movies after a brief return to the spotlight of critical acclaim, and a sleepwalking Willis; the introduction of Brolin in the middle of a series of bad movie choices between 2012 and 2014, a slumming it Gordon-Levitt, and Green who, after this film and that other too-late sequel from 2014 300: Rise of an Empire, really ought to have a strongly worded conversation with her agent, with the remainder of the cast filled out with character actors and actresses who are required to do nothing but look good in various states of undress (and I don't think there's a single woman who appears in the film fully dressed, with the exception of Green, whose scenes where she's totally dressed are counterbalanced by scenes where she's wearing nothing at all).

One of my major problems with the first Sin City was its depiction of women and the sequel is hardly an improvement. Arguably it's actually even worse, given its toxic view of what makes a woman "worthy" or "unworthy." Consider its two main female characters, Ava and Nancy (really, its only two female characters, as all the others are just there as window dressing, even when they're helping to slaughter "bad" guys), the former an unworthy, the latter a worthy. The first film sets up Nancy as the angel of Sin City, the one and only figure of goodness, uncorrupted despite the ugliness that surrounds her. She's "good," while Ava, the dame to kill for of the title, is "bad," the devil in the flesh who tempts men who would otherwise just be minding their own business into doing her dirty work for her. She seduces Dwight and manipulates him into killing her husband, which is bad, but in all the circumstances not nearly so bad that she deserves to be considered just a rung lower on the ladder of evil than Senator Rourke. She uses Dwight, plays on his emotions, and puts him in a situation where he could kill someone and be killed himself... which is exactly what Nancy does later with Marv... and exactly what Dwight himself does with Marv. So, fundamentally, I have a hard time seeing why Ava is spoken about as though she's the worst of the worst when, really, her actions merely put her on equal ground with every other character in the movie.

Moreover, at least Ava has some level of agency, which is something Nancy lacks even when she's the center of her own story. On paper, Nancy's story is something which might be compelling: as a young girl, she's the sole survivor of a serial child rapist/murder, rescued by Hartigan, who sacrifices himself twice to ensure her safety. In the wake of his death, she finally loses her innocence and decides to turn herself into an agent of revenge. The problem is that as told by Frank Miller, this is never actually Nancy's story; it's Hartigan's. The first film is all about showing what Hartigan does for Nancy; the second is all about how Nancy is destroyed not by her own experiences, but by the loss of Hartigan because she exists only as a symbol for Hartigan. "Nancy's Last Dance" is unfolded as if it's the anchor that's going to give the film an emotional punch to end on, but it just fizzles and dies because there is nothing to Nancy as a character, and even less to Alba's performance - but, then again, there's not much to any of the performances, outside that of Green. Alone of all the actors in the film, Green manages to make her character, problematic though she might be, worth watching. While Ava the character is the personification of the film's ugly view of women, Green's performance is so dynamic, edged just enough so that it seems like there's a joke that only she is in on, that the film (or, at least, her section of the film) almost works. None of the women in Sin City 2 is as literally exposed as Green, who is fully naked in several scenes, yet Green is such a dominant presence that her nakedness feels less like exploitation and more like a weapon.

It's unfortunate for the film that Green ultimately appears in so little of it, because her scenes are the only times it ever really comes alive. Everything else here seems to be on autopilot, from the hard-boiled dialogue, to the bursts of gory violence, to the unofficial contest to see which of the male actors can do the most macho flexing. Sin City 2 is a bad movie, an infantile testosterone fantasy that has virtually nothing to offer its audience except a watered down and warmed over version of the same ugliness featured in the first. It's a film that exists merely in the hope that lightning might strike twice, a lazy attempt at a quick couple of bucks. But 2014 was a different time than 2005, and Sin City 2 went largely ignored, a fate it richly deserves.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: This shit should've been straight to video


Dell said...

I actually love the original, but this one is just awful. For me, it's actually the JGL story that has the life, not the Eva Green one. My reasoning:


Norma Desmond said...

Fair enough, re: what one thing actually works in the movie, but yeah awful, awful, awful.