Some look at “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” and at the work that comics auteur Frank Miller has done in adapting his noir-inspired stories for the screen, and they ask, What’s the point? When Miller and directing partner Robert Rodriguez have talked so effusively about wanting to capture the comics’ stylized depravity, panel for black-and-white panel, don’t we automatically know everything we’re getting? Well, with 2005’s initial “Sin City” installment, sometimes we got more. Grotesque wild man Marv made for terrifically unhinged reading, but seeing Mickey Rourke inhabit the character made his pulp pathos more tangible.
On the flip side, one of the first movie’s principal sinners, a genetically altered pedophile, felt like an awfully bad idea. Reading the repellent character allowed for a certain detachment that watching him did not. You could argue that the only thing that’s automatic about “A Dame to Kill For,” really, is some of the firepower that its hardcases are packing.
In this new anthology, the fan-favorite yarn of the title is the one that gets long-form treatment, and it has the cinematic juice to warrant it. Josh Brolin plays Dwight McCarthy, an underbelly dweller whose moral compass may have cracks but still points the right way. He’s a guy who scrapes by snapping cheating-heart pics, but leaps to the skylight-shattering, creep-throttling rescue when a john (Ray Liotta, in an amusing cameo; Lady Gaga has another) gets violent. Still, Dwight loses his bearings fast when he gets a call from his femme fatale ex-lover, Ava Lord (Eva Green, playing man-eating vamp even more, um, revealingly than she did in the Miller-produced “300: Rise of an Empire”).
Oh, sure, Dwight tries to tune out her desperate story that her husband wants her dead. “I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night,” he snarls. The scene is one of many that have an added, entertaining crackle in live action. But from the first tight shot of Ava’s crimson lips — one of various splashes of color added to the print template — we know that Dwight is in trouble. The way it all plays out is like “Double Indemnity” fused with Miller’s penchant for gonzo brutality and that inky, surreal landscape. As usual with “Sin City,” much of the vibe is about echoing genre touchstones, while the look isn’t quite like anything else the digital age has seen.
The other stories range from pretty good to not good at all. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a cool presence in an all-new segment about a cocky gambler playing poker with sinister politico Roark (Powers Boothe). Marv returns from the dead — we’re in prequel territory here – but the opening segment spotlighting him is based on a throwaway comics short, and it shows. (Rourke’s encore is too much of a good, gnarly thing, save for Marv’s stint giving Dwight backup.) And cowgal stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) is back for a new story tracking her downward spiral after losing savior cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis, cashing the flashback check). Aside from the wacko, self-mutilating makeover Alba gives herself, there’s little of interest in this closing chapter, just a lot of stiffly played vengefulness. You could cruise into Sin City late and clear out after Brolin and Gordon-Levitt take their bows and not miss a thing.
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.