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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies — Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

U.S.: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, 2013

Sequels can be deadly. In the case of the 2005 Sin City — sequelized recently after a nine year hiatus as the much more wordily titled (and much more bloodily realized)  Frank Miller‘s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For — it’s almost a sequel to root for, even if it’s just as often almost a sequel to lament.  Reprising a lot of the characters, plot and narrative devices of the original show, it’s fun to watch, part of the time, and annoying some of the rest. If you think you’ll like it going in, you probably will, or did. If you think you won’t, you….

In any case, the first movie was better. Or it played better. Based on Miller’s “Sin City” graphic novels–which took the tricks and tropes of film noir (both the literary and cinematic varieties) to a point of stylistic  near-meltdown — the movie was a shadowy, violent, blisteringly cynical comic book rock ‘n roll parody/melodrama hoot: an orgy of movie lust and celluloid violence and pulpy eloquence that was all about the crooks, thugs, lonely men, strippers, whores, men with guns or hotly pursued dames and femme fatales who hung out at Miller’s evil Neverland.

Miller and co-director (and cinematographer and editor) Robert Rodriguez interwove several two-fisted, hot pants, blood-drenched, cigarette-sucking, breast-ogling stories about Basin City, green-screened up a black and white city of night and a Chandler-Hammett-Spillane arena of massacres, and populated it with an all-star, all-noir cast that included Bruce Willis (the moody loner), Jessica Alba (the angel of the night), Clive Owen (the private dick), Rosario Dawson (an amazon whore), Powers Boothe (a corrupt politico), Elijah Wood (his freaky-deaky son), Michael Clarke Duncan (the black behemoth),  and, most memorable of all, Mickey Rourke, as the tormented bone crusher and man of few words and many wounds Marv), and stirred it all into a rhapsody in paperback red. I liked it, some of it, and so did enough noir and pseudo-noir fans to make it a worldwide hit. There was supposed to be another one, fairly soon afterwards. But, you know,  things happened. Things do.

Now, it’s finally here, minus Owen (replaced by Josh Brolin), minus  Duncan (replaced by Dennis Haysbert),  plus (definitely) Eva Green (as the often naked, mostly scintillating femme fatale of the piece), joined by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the reckless, self-destructive gambler) — plus or minus a number of others (Ray Liotta, Stacy Keach. Juno Temple, Lady Gaga, and Christophers Meloni and Lloyd). Perhaps the most damaging absence is that of “special guest director” Quentin Tarantino. Not that his sections were that much superior, but his presence often seems to validate the pulpiest pulp and the most hard-boiled trash.

The new movie is shot in the same feverishly artificial style (the monochrome noir-et-blanc imagery, erupting with pops of gold, red and blue), with images out of Kiss Me Deadly,  crossed with The Wild Bunch, M, Point Blank, The Asphalt Jungle and Gun Crazy. But this time, it all seems less emotionally moving, somewhat more overwrought. Been there. Killed that.

The directors here,  maybe knowingly, have opened themselves up to charges of misogyny, which many critics were happy to file. (I thought it was more a matter of misanthropy — with both sexes taking it in the groin). There really isn’t more than a few sane or half-decent characters in the movie, of whatever sex — maybe Willis as Hartigan is the exception, though he‘s already dead — and the stories (despite trying to repeat the first film’s mix of sadism and sentimentality), didn‘t zing the strings of my heart. Still, I’d rather watch this high style, hard-boiled, gutter-operatic new Sin City installment, than most of what passes for action cinema these days. (Miller is  a better writer than most of his competitors, and he and Rodriguez are better visualists than most of theirs.)

They’ve whipped up several stories, unwinding together. Johnny (Gordon-Levitt) unwisely beats Senator Roark (Booth) at cards. Ava (Green) makes saps of a bunch of guys, including shamus Dwight (Brolin). Gail (Dawson) and the gals run wild. Life is cheap in Sin City, but the special effects cost millions — or at least an arm and a leg.

The movie, while entertaining, isn’t in the same category as genuine noir, or neo-noir  — like, to rustle up a pantheon, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Detour, Double Indemnity, Out of the Past and The Killers — but it‘s made by people who know those movies and know why they‘re better than most of what we see in their place today.

Then again, maybe that’s not fair — though who said life, however black-and-white, was fair.  Certainly not film noir. Certainly not Frank Miller. The problem with most big-budget movies these days — and that definitely includes most big-budget action movies (‘The Expendables’ series for starters) — is that, though they’re sometimes well-shot,  they’re mostly not well-written or well-characterized or populated with anything much beyond walking clichés. (A recent good exception: Michael R. Roskam’s and Dennis Lehane’s Brooklyn nocturne, The Drop.)

These pictures rely mostly  on the instant personality and the good looks of big stars to try to pull us into their clichéd plotlines. Miller is a better writer than most  and Sin City 2 is better- written than most action or crime scripts. But it isn’t done with the voluptuous joy and craziness of the first Sin City. Instead, it drowns and pinwheels and explodes in excess, while trying to pass off all its clichés as archetypes. Miller and Rodriguez rely on a few showstopper performances — Eva Green all the time and Mickey Rourke part of it — to try to seduce us or bowl us over. But A Dame to Kill For  wastes Gordon-Levitt and Dawson and some others, and it’s reduced to bringing Bruce Willis back from the dead. It’s difficult to remember most of it afterwards or, even worse, to want to remember it. By the way, “A Dame to Kill For” is a lousy title. “ Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” is worse. The movie, which has its moments,  deserves better.

Why? What went wrong? Was it because Quentin Tarantino (Q. T.) was A. W. O. L. — maybe planning a new New Beverly repertory schedule? Because the ultra-noir monochrome of the visuals was more startling and exciting back in 2005? Because a movie released in the George Bush era gets to be meaner and more out-of-bounds than one released in Barack Obama’s? Because Eva Green can’t flaunt every fantasy and save it all?

Whatever the reason…

You know, the thing about noir is that it started out cheap and easy: magazines (Black Mask) and paperback novels (“I Wake Up Screaming“) where dames were to kill for, and chumps were to kill  and private eyes were there to sweep up the bones and ashes and the stuff that dreams are made of. Gradually, thanks to writers like Hammett and Chandler, McCoy and Himes, Thompson and Goodis, and filmmakers like Lang and Hawks, Walsh, Siodmak, Polanski and Huston —  it all evolved into something richer and more complex and more unforgettably bleak and transfixing. Eventually, the best of the writers won themselves some slots in The Library of America, which they deserved, even as earlier a lot of them were smoking and drinking themselves into an early grave.   Then came the movies and, eventually, Sin City..

This second Sin City isn’t as bad as some critics say, and it isn’t as good as some others may insist. They tried. It’s an expensive movie that probably would have been better if it were a little cheaper. And if Miller wrote as well as A. I. Bezzerides or Daniel Mainwaring. But life is cheap. Life is deadly. Life is something else. You reach out and feel its crisp black and white images  crinkle and crumple and rip themselves to shreds in your hands. Listen. Death is a fucking joke in this movie. But it’s no joke in life (or so we think) — which leaves us with that crumpled page and that big movie screen and those exquisitely aligned shots of guns and breasts and that blood-red bang and pop-pop-pop.

Whatever the reason. Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” is no movie to kill for. Or to die for,. Or whatever. But, face it, none of them are. Or very few. Not even if they have Eva Green on a green screen, making us all chumps. Not even if…

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One Response to “Wilmington on Movies — Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”

  1. Pete B. says:

    Eva Green could make me a chump on any color screen she chooses.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon