Saturday, August 23, 2014

City Scrapes: SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR


Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is an exercise in style, but director Robert Rodriguez exhausted that bag of tricks the first time. Back in 2005 the man behind Spy Kids and Machete adapted Frank Miller’s black and white Sin City comics, taking stylized panels of smarmy, hyperviolent cartoonish noir and translating them into CGI images. It’s a striking effect. Actors are buried under Dick Tracy-style makeup then green-screened into pulpy tableaus, staging violence and sex between cops and robbers, thugs and strippers, gamblers and punks. Blood spurts white, but clots red. Eye colors and fire are the only other hues in this grimy, high-contrast nightmare city. It is always night. The streets are always wet. And there’s no such thing as an innocent person.

I grew tired of the affected intensity well before the first film ended, but here we are again. Sin City is a dully artificial place totally removed from anything resembling genuine feeling or fun. It’s grim, gory, exaggerated genre grime. Coming from a claustrophobically phony, clammily adolescent mindset, the movies think bullets are awesome, vigilantes’ perverse overkill is justified, and women are only as good as their aim or their bust. It might be fun to take a peek into such a shamelessly exploitative world, but wallowing in it feels uncomfortable pretty quickly. Worst of all, Rodriguez, working from a screenplay by Miller, doesn’t seem to care too much about the intent of his images beyond the striking surfaces. If it were coming from a genuinely ugly place, it’d be offensive, but more authentic. Instead, it’s just boring, reaching for shock value and finding nothing.

Like the first film, A Dame to Kill For features an episodic series of vignettes about bad people who want to hurt worse people. Gravely voiced narrators talk and talk, overexplaining the events in prose so purple it’s like a parody of hard boiled dialogue written by someone who never actually heard it. Some of the stories, like those involving a stripper (Jessica Alba) and her guardian angel cop (Bruce Willis), a bruiser with a warped moral code (Mickey Rourke), and a band of militant prostitutes (led by Rosario Dawson), carry over from the first film. Others are new, but feel of a piece with the monotonous tone. We meet a cocky cardshark (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who runs afoul of a corrupt senator (Powers Boothe). And in the best story we meet a dopey lug (Josh Brolin) who is roped into the schemes of an alluring femme fatale (Eva Green).

She’s easily the most captivating aspect of the film. Luckily, her story is the lengthy centerpiece, the only plot that runs uninterrupted. Her green eyes match her character’s greed. Her often-naked body is a lure leading men to their deaths for her benefit. Her shamelessness about her selfish predatory nature makes her the most honest person in Sin City, even if it means she’s reliably never telling the truth. Patchy and episodic, the movie flares to life around Green’s fine performance that manages to chew its way out of the artifice around her. Everyone else in the sprawling cast, which also features Dennis Haysbert, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Meloni, Ray Liotta, Juno Temple, Christopher Lloyd, Lady Gaga, and more, fails to make an impact in the monotonous dirge that is life in the Sin City.

The movie expires well before its end credits, with plotlines arriving at their obvious conclusions in obvious ways. There’s no wit or surprise to any of it. Rodriguez is always making films for his own amusement, playing around with filmmaking tools and B-movie concepts just because he can. When he forgets to let us in on the fun, his movies are passion projects for an audience of one. With these Sin City adaptations, he’s stretched a small interesting visual idea much farther than it could possibly go. We’ve been here before and there’s nothing new to see. This remains a strikingly visualized, but thinly imagined place.

It takes noirs' ugly underbelly, scrapes it down to its most exaggerated nastiness, and then shoots its images full of the whitest white and blackest black. A fine idea, but Rodriguez’s visual imagination has hit a wall, leaving the stereotypical surface ticks of noir – hard lighting, inky shadows, smoldering smokiness – without the room to find meaning behind them. Sin City can only exist as fake genre play, and yet for all the work to make it shine, it’s undercooked and stiflingly stylish, suffocating under its own brutish frames. Film can capture great fictional cities, from Gotham and Metropolis to Dark City and Coruscant, allowing us to live in a metropolis of the imagination. But I’ve spent two whole movies in Sin City now and it still hasn’t come to life.

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