In “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” opening Friday, Josh Brolin’s life-battered, borderline schizo nighthawk Dwight McCarthy is the toughest of customers. Still, Dwight can’t resist the seductive call of his ex-lover, femme fatale Ava Lord (Eva Green, “300: Rise of an Empire”). Sounds a bit like the lure that “Sin City” holds for writer and co-director Frank Miller, the celebrated comic-book artist who launched the franchise in boldly stylized black-and-white panels back in 1991.
At the time, the series demanded attention simply for being one of Miller’s encores to the seminal “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” (a story that, three decades on, figures to be a key influence in the upcoming “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”). But the “Sin City” comics quickly distinguished themselves as an over-the-top yet frequently dead-on homage to Chandler, Cain, and the other greats of hard-boiled crime fiction. In short, a perfect showcase for the seamy-underbelly fascination evident in Miller’s work since his star-making run on Marvel’s “Daredevil” in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Miller, 57, teamed with famously DIY-minded director Robert Rodriguez (“Grindhouse”) on the first CG-heavy, meticulously faithful “Sin City” adaptation in 2005. The two reconnected at Rodriguez’s Austin, Texas, micro-studio for the sequel, along with returning cast members Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, and Rosario Dawson, and new additions Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dennis Haysbert, and Lady Gaga (nee Stefani Germanotta).
The multi-tasking artist’s stamp appeared on a few other projects in the interim — “300” adapted his hard-rocking sword-and-sandal vision, he directed the vintage-comics tribute “The Spirit,” and he spliced superheroes and post-9/11 rage in the indie graphic novel “Holy Terror.” But as Miller increasingly drifted into coolly received experimentalism — “Terror” was going to be a Batman story until original publisher DC reportedly balked — it became apparent that a return trip inside the creatively expansive “Sin City” limits was probably in order. He dug what he’d forged with this material, so did his fans, and while the superhero genre seemingly could sustain only so much craziness, in “Sin City” . . . well, anything goes.
If this neo-noir world is the best-tailored fit there is for Miller’s sensibilities, then the story in “A Dame to Kill For” could well be the best of the best. From its throwback title to its evocatively illustrated “Double Indemnity” riff, this one is the purest distillation of the pulp and cinema that inspired him. The first movie’s anthology lineup covered a lot of genre ground, but hulkingly grotesque wild man Marv (Rourke), featured in the segment “The Hard Goodbye,” was uniquely, contemporarily ultraviolent. In “The Big Fat Kill,” Dwight (then played by Clive Owen) dabbled in combat strategy that Miller imported from his “300” research. And in “That Yellow Bastard,” straight-arrow cop Hartigan (Willis) tangled with a visually out-there, genetically altered psycho with highlighter-colored skin.
“A Dame to Kill For” is the straight stuff: a mug who oughta know better letting himself get in deep again, and furiously scraping and punching his way back out. Diabolical Ava Lord walks back into Dwight’s life on those sex-bomb heels, she convinces him that her husband wants her dead, and then, go figure, Dwight gets a faceful of the truth. And bullets. Where does the story go from there? Miller’s sharp prose, which generally seems to take a critical back seat to his visual storytelling, keeps things churning along: “I hold my guts in and do my best to stay conscious,” Dwight’s comics voice-over tells us. “Thinking about Ava helps. Ava. You got me good, babe. . . . You’ve damned my soul to hell.”
While Dwight’s dicey yarn is the film’s centerpiece, Miller and Rodriguez will again be shuffling through a few different stories here. And look for them to again give audiences some bonuses on top of the anticipated panel-for-panel re-creations — everything from splashes of digital color that shake up the comics’ inky aesthetic to completely original segments. The sequel opens by covering the print one-off “Just Another Saturday Night,” with gonzo Marv struggling to remember what he got up to while good cop Hartigan was saving Nancy from the yellow creep. A new story, “The Long, Bad Night,” casts Gordon-Levitt as a poker hotshot taking on Powers Boothe’s scary-powerful senator. Also new is “Nancy’s Last Dance,” which follows Alba’s stripper on a downward spiral triggered by Hartigan’s darkly heroic suicide in the first movie.
The stories will intersect, and shuttle back and forth in time. Characters who bit it last time get to live again. Who knows, maybe Miller and Rodriguez will even toss in comics mischievousness like the “Dame” panel that shows Marv off to one side, driving by on his killin’ mission from “The Hard Goodbye.” Shades of the ballyhooed interconnectivity that Marvel has managed with its various “Avengers” tie-ins, and that the rest of Hollywood is scrambling to imitate. Consider it one more way that Miller is great with superhero tropes, but even better at channeling that creative energy into his bloody valentine to noir.