RECAP: Frank Miller’s Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For

Frank Miller’s Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For (2014): Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

A rant: Let’s stop the trend(?) of enshrining a director’s name to a movie’s title. Frank Miller did it here. Lee Daniels tried the same trick with The Butler. We’ve already succummed to auteur theory; why hammer the nail further?

A Dame to Kill For uses the same storytelling technique as its predecessor: interconnected stories of down-and-out folks in Sin City. This time around, some of the characters we know, and some we don’t.

There’s also a time-skip. For some characters this film is a sequel, for others a prequel. Sounds confusing, but the aspect actually works.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Sin City is full of a lot of bad people, and they do bad things to each other, and it’s mostly black and white, and there’s nudity and murders and stuff, and some of the colors pop out, and there’s a lot of scenes. 

Hero (3/10)

A Dame to Kill For tells its story in vignettes, and thus delivers three heroes connected in a Kevin Bacon-like manner (they’ve all patronized a saloon/striptease joint called Kadie’s).

Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a new kid in town, eager to make a buck and a name for himself, because “Johnny” is as dull as a name gets. It needs a shine.

Johnny is a winner. How do I know? Because he says often, “I never lose.” And we don’t see it happen. He walks into Kadie’s and places his lucky dollar (I think) coin into a slot machine, pulls the lever, and watches the coins fall out.

This attracts the attention of Marcie (Julia Garner), one of the few characters in full color for some reason. Johnny declares Marcie his good luck charm, asking her to kiss his next coin, which also ends in a flush of slot machine coins.

Johnny getting ready to win, like he always does.
Johnny getting ready to win, like he always does.

With all those dollar coins he can buy a seat at Senator Roark’s (demon-faced Powers Boothe) poker table. Johnny gets to deal first. If I said he was an ace with sleight of hand, would that be a bad joke, or a terrible joke?

Johnny ends up winning all of Roark’s coins. Like he said, he always wins, and with a smirk. With a duffel full of money, Johnny takes Marcie on the town. The night quickly deteriorates into a meeting with Roark inside his limousine. Roark has his goons use pliers to snap two of Johnny’s expert fingers, throws him out of the car, and then shoots him in the leg. “You have any idea how easy I kill little snots like you?” Roark asks, before not killing Johnny.

***

Our second, beefiest hero is Dwight (possible cinder block Josh Brolin). This is the Dwight played by Clive Owen in the original Sin City, and before he’s had a face-change operation to duck the cops. Dwight’s meant to be a hero because we see him foil a murder during his introduction scene. Dwight falls through a glass roof to land atop Ray Liotta and punch him senseless.

Dwight might be a hero, but he’s a very stupid one. He once dated Ava Lord (Eva Green), but learned of her treacherous nature when she left him. One night Ava stumbles back into Dwight’s life to beg forgiveness and to kill her current husband.

Ava clutching Dwight. This pose about sums up their relationship.
Ava clutching Dwight. This pose sums up their relationship.

Dwight, who is troubled by past demons, would “give anything just to cut loose, one more time.” Ava seems to have heard him and offered that chance. Even though he says, “I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night,” Dwight manages to fall into Ava’s trap.

Dwight, with Marv’s help, breaks into the Lord mansion and, as promised, kills Ava’s husband. Ava promptly reveals her plot and shoots Dwight in the shoulder and through the eye.

***

That’s two main characters shot, how about a third? Jessica Alba reprises the role of Nancy Callahan, stripper with a heart of gold. Actually, in A Dame to Kill For, it’s a heart of vodka, because she downs shot after shot.

Nancy is depressed. She sees the ghost of her beloved savior John Hartigan everywhere, even when not visiting his grave. She’s taken to drinking, but still does her sultry dances for the boys at Kadie’s. She does four dances before speaking a single line.

Preparing to murder the state’s most powerful man (Senator Roark) requires much willpower, and aid from Marv, that superhuman killing machine.

These three main characters don’t know each other. Johnny and Nancy hate Roark; Nancy and Dwight seek Marv to aid their plots. All three are shot.

Here is a good place to find the movie’s failings. Johnny’s story was irrelevant. Dwight’s story was the meatiest, but he was a dipshit, and Nancy’s vengeance seemed tacked on for good measure. Bad character and bad organization can do a lot to hurt a film, as happened here.

Villain (6/10)

The eponymous Dame to Kill For is Ava Lord, played to full sultriness by Eva Green. Few working actresses have doubled down on the femme fatale role like Green, and Ava is her fatale-est femme yet played. She murders many folks.

Ava begins her role apologetically, when she meets Dwight at Kadie’s, while wearing a blue dress. Ava has wronged Dwight in the past, we can see, and she twice begs for forgiveness and to make out.

Ava feeds Dwight a sob story about an abusive husband, or a neglectful husband, or something like that. Dwight buys it, because he buys whatever Ava sells, and hatches this plan to kill Ava’s husband, which succeeds, only to have Ava shoot him through the eye. The ploy was to kill off her husband so she could gain a fortune.

The film portrays Ava as a powerful witch, one who must bathe constantly to gain her strength, like a reverse-Wicked Witch. She’s probably topless in more scenes than not, mostly in water. Her hold on men is powerful and unrelenting.

Consider the detective assigned to investigate Ava’s husband’s murder. Mort (Christopher Meloni) becomes obsessed with Ava. First, he refused to be interested in her, then he reluctantly falls into her arms, next he leaves his wife for Ava, and finally he murders his partner and commits suicide. All in the span of ten minutes screen time.

My favorite character, the pathetic Mort.
My favorite character, the pathetic Mort.

Green uses her best whisper voice to seduce men. In her best scene she talks on the phone (try acting with a phone some time) to Mort. Ava sits in a bubble bath at night, waiting for the phone to ring. It does. She says, “Finally,” and lifts the receiver, adopting her best Distressed Damsel voice to speak with Mort. Green stares ahead, fully calm and controlled, but sounding the opposite. “I guess I’m not a very strong person,” she says, though looking at her you know she’s only strength and resolve. Mort falls for it, of course.

Eva Green and Mickey Rourke are Sin City‘s only actors who understand its hyperbole, injecting some smirking humor into their roles, aka the Bruce Willis Acting Method. That the movie doesn’t feature them enough is its drawback.

Oh yeah, there’s another villain in this piece. Senator Roark is the most powerful man in whatever state Sin City is in. Roark runs the town as a crime boss, shooting the leg of his own son, just to prove a point about power. Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith he ain’t.

Roark spends most of his time playing poker against his cronies and illegitimate sons. He wins, too, because his opponents are always folding, until a young man named Johnny sits down and wins.

Roark doesn’t enjoy losing, so he tracks Johnny across town and breaks two of fingers and shoots his knee. “***” Power is a thing to be wielded at all times and in all manners.

Boothe, whose eyes look like they will shoot lasers at you, plays Roark as a scaly shark in tailor-made suits. A low-grade chuckle is his favorite part of speech.

Action/Effects (5/10)

A Dame to Kill For reprises the mostly black-and-white palate of Sin City. Acted almost entirely in front of a green screen, the film buries its protagonists under oppressive black. The color itself seems to make Sin City’s denizens go crazy.

Some colors are let loose. Marv has his eyes turn blood red when hearing a story about alleged treachery. Ava’s eyes turn anguine green when she achieve full villainhood. Reds are often red, because that’s a color that makes you take notice.

Except blood. Characters lose hand, eyes, and heads in the movie, but the blood gushes opaque white. I was thankful for this, because characters lose gallons of blood. We don’t need to see the red to know a body without a head is a dead body.

Sin City’s violence is brutal and meaningless. Characters kill primarily for revenge, but also fear, rage, and fun. The highest death count could belong to Miho, reprising her role as a silent Japanese swordswoman, who helps Dwight enter Ava’s compound late in the film. She decapitates a quartet of guards in one twirling swing.

Johnny is tortured by Roark, who breaks his fingers, and tortured again by a back alley doctor, who rebreaks his fingers to set them. For what that’s worth, Gordon-Levitt proved the film’s best screamer, so at least he had that going for him; Alba was also a convincing screamer.

Sidekicks (5/8)

Mickey Rourke reprises his fantastic role of Marv, a man whose face resembles a scalable cliff. Marv is enamored with Nancy, the mostly silent stripper played by Alba.

Nancy and Marv on their way to kill Senator Roark.
Nancy and Marv on their way to kill Senator Roark.

Marv opens the film stumbling from a car crash overlooking Sin City. He can’t remember what he’s doing there, he repeats a few times, until he soon remembers what he was doing there. Back in the city Marv had spotted four trust fund babies trying to set fire to a wino. Marv stood up to the punks, even took a bullet, and pursued them through town and into the hills.

Marv killed them with little difficulty and less remorse, returning to his neighborhood to finish the job on the other two. Marv has great neighbors, invisible folk who’ll toss a knife when one’s needed to slash a throat, as Marv does to kill the last of the four rich douches.

When not killing, Marv doesn’t have much to do. He accepts a job backing up Dwight because he’s bored and looking for a fight. He gets that fight against Manute, a hulking squire of Ava Lord’s and dressed as a gendarme. The fight ends with Marv plucking Manute’s eye. “I haven’t had my hand around one of these in days,” Marv says as he twirls the optic nerve around his finger. Violence is cheap in Sin City.

Marv dies in the original Sin City, tinging his screentime with melancholy. This is just a trip around the old block for us Marv fans.

Henchmen (4/8)

Dennis Haysbert plays Manute, second hand to Ava and possible robot. Manute is the strongest character in this sequel, equalled perhaps by Marv.

Change in Manutes between films.
Change in Manutes between films.

Manute, dressed as a gendarme, or perhaps a valet, guards Ava as a demigod protects an Olympian. His devotion is admirable, and I found myself rooting for him, despite his accused bad guy status.

When Dwight enters Ava’s compound, Manute expected it. He takes Dwight camera and crushes it by gripping it. A remarkable feat, which is why I am remarking on it. Manute decides to wail on Dwight, and his kicks and punches are described as atom bombs and freight trains, and by a guy who we’ve already seen nearly beat Ray Liotta to death.

Manute loses an eye in his fight with Marv, but Marv is also superhuman, so we can let that slide. The missing eye, which ends up in Dwight’s head, is replaced with a gold orb.

Not that I think about, I’m convinced that Manute is actually a robot. One: an unyielding devotion to Ava Lord (“The goddess makes slaves of men”); two: Manute dresses like Frenchman Captain Renault in Casablanca, a movie 70 years old; and three: that gold eye, like a more stylish Terminator eye.

Stunts (2/6)

Fight scenes in A Dame to Kill For are too few an too short. This is a movie for gun violence, and that we get in spades.

Marv is the prime candidate to bash someone with fists. He’s the guy who dives through a cop car’s windshield, like a hawk he crashes through the glass and beats out the two cops, stealing the car.

Is Miho a Nazi, or a Buddhist?
Is Miho a Nazi, or a Jain?

Marv doesn’t enjoy drawn out fights. When guys come at him, he need only stick out his arm to knock them out. Only a fighting machine like Manute could slow him, and that fight barely lasts longer than a few seconds. Marv drives Manute through a window, lands on top of him, and plucks out his eyeball.

Gruesome stuff, like all the rest.

Climax (2/6)

Each hero gets his/her night in the moon. Johnny, fresh off of $40 worth of medical treatment from a slipper-wearing heroin addict, returns to face Roark in poker again. “This has turned into a long, bad night,” he says, on his way to earning the dollar he needs to restart his fortune, which is also how I felt watching this movie.

Marcie’s dead. “I got cocky and I got Marcie dead,” Johnny says. Yes, you did. But you’ll avenge her by…winning at poker! Johnny, now with one working hand, sits again at Roark’s table. He’s lost some of cockiness, but not winning ability. He folds some ace hands, all to bait Roark into a final showdown of all his coinage.

Good and bad people doing bad things.
Good and bad people doing bad things.

Roark smiles when he throws down four kings. Johnny smiles harder with his hand of four aces. “I always win.” Johnny explains that he knows Roark has power over him, but when folks tell the story of the two poker games, it will always end with Johnny beating Roark twice. Johnny’s the New York Giants, Roark the New England Patriots. In a total Belicheck move, Roark shoots Johnny in the skull. Game over.

***

Dwight and Nancy stage separate break-ins of their antagonist’s compounds. Dwight assembles a team of Old Town whores to slice and shoot their way into Ava’s mansion. Dwight’s disguised himself with surgery (he was Clive Owen at this point) including hair transplants, but Manute is not fooled. He holds Dwight at gunpoint.

Dwight’s cool because he’s waiting for a diversion. It comes when Gail (Rosario Dawson), his prostitute protector, detonates a nearby car. This explosion leaves scrapes along Ava’s face. Dwight Taxi Driver’s Manute with the handgun attached to a rail beneath his sleeve.

Unleash the ladies. Gail picks up an Uzi and kills three guards. Miho dodges bullets by running away from them and uses her bow to arrow guards from the roof.

Dwight, meanwhile, has shot Manute six times in the chest. That causes Manute to laugh. Not a head shot in the bunch. Now it’s Ava’s turn to surprise. She kills Manute and begs Dwight, again, to join her. “You’re twice the man I thought you were,” she says. “Pain has set you free. Be like me.” We almost believe her, and so does Dwight. “Remember what she is,” he narrates.

Dwight embraces Ava, kisses her, shoots her. “Life leaves Ava with a sigh.” Aww.

***

Nancy’s tale of revenge ends the film. She recruits Marv, a popular guy, to help kill Senator Roark. Marv has nothing better to do, so he accepts. They start their war by thwarting a robbery and stealing their weapons–Nancy a crossbow and Marv two shotguns.

When they arrive at Roark’s mansion, Marv lays out the stakes. “There’s no reason to leave anybody alive.” No witnesses. Nancy agrees. She sneaks amongst some cows and starts fulfilling her half of the bargain by killing five guards (one at extremely long range) before any alarms are sounded.

Marv uses a stolen motorcycle to breach the compound’s fence and uses his shotguns to blast heads apart. Nancy kills three more with her crossbow in rapid fire, and Marv, on the porch now, kill four guards with two bullets. Yes, four with two.

Nancy follows Marv’s trail of carnage into the house, leaving her assistant to enter Roark’s study. She spots the villain and shoots, but the bullet hits glass–a mirror. Roark shoots her leg and she hits the floor.

When Nancy envisions Hartigan her hair tangles.
When Nancy envisions Hartigan her hair tangles.

Roark oozes out his sleazy laugh and shoots away Nancy’s gun like a curling rock. He walks away to make a drink. He recalls that Nancy’s savior Hartigan shot Roark’s son in the balls, ruining his chance to follow in the family business of political corruption.

It’s hard to tell how Nancy is going to survive this. Marv is AWOL, she’s writhing on the floor, and Roark can shoot targets without looking at them. As he stands over his victim, the ghost of John Hartigan appears in the mirror. Roark turns around to search for the ghost. Nancy uses the distraction to grab her gun and shoot Roark in the shoulder. Then, standing over him, she says, “This is for John Hartigan, fucker.” Blammo. Roll credits.

Jokes (0/4)

A Dame to Kill For is one brutal film. Its characters don’t have the energy or desire for fun, only the semblance of it. Men visit hookers and strip clubs and play poker, but without joy. We watch three couples have sex, but only because they want something out of it.

The only times I laughed came when Ava Lord took a phone call from Detective Mort, when she pretended she needed his help, and later when she and Mort were having sex and she answered the phone mid-coitus. Eva Green is a skilled actor, but if she’s the funniest person in your film, you’ve made a grim one.

Setting (0/4)

Sin City: it’s right there in the title. Non-war movies aren’t often titled by their settings, but this one is. 300 was not called Thermopylae and Gotham is a TV show, not a movie.

Sin City is a terrible place to live. The rich are the worst villains and the poor live in defacto war zones. At least the streets are clean (if you ignore the blood). Saloons, brothels, steaming hot tubs: the city beckons, but it will leave you broken, as broken as your jaw, or at least your spirit.

If having a Dark Night of the Soul, taking in a city's vista can cure that.
If having a Dark Night of the Soul, taking in a city’s vista can cure that.

A Dame to Kill For gets repetitive quickly. Johnny and Dwight are both thrown from moving vehicles, and Marv leaps through the windshield of one to steal a cop car. He did that in the first film.

Marv, Johnny, Dwight, and Detective Mort ALL overlook the city from the bluffs, contemplating key moments in their lives. Hookers with Hearts of Gold are portrayed in full color, and not black and white.

Commentary (0/2)

Sin City is pure noir, meant to violently update the genre for the violent times we live in and the less-than-delicate sensibilities of the modern moviegoer. Few in town are without sin, and those who are die quickly.

Roark became a senator while killing numerous “little snots.” Marv, the city’s best fighter, has a face like a war zone. Ava murders her way to a fancy pad. Johnny won a fortune, lost it, won another one, and died, all in one night.

Forcing good people to make bad choices can make for excellent drama. A Dame to Kill For is awash in too much blood and nihilistic violence to allow its characters to act.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Can a single line or act offend in a movie full of offensive acts? The violence, language, and sex are outlandish and brutal, devoid of emotions, save rage. The barrage of sensuality dulls its effects. Because nothing stands out as egregious, I will not subtract points.

Others

  • Christopher Meloni’s character is such a tool that he wears glasses in bed.
  • There are two actors named Christopher in this movie.
  • We know that Ava’s husband is a bad dude because Dwight catches him reading.
  • (-1) Seeing Ray Liotta’s O-face is something that can’t be unseen. I don’t even like his normal face.
  • The coin stacks at Roark’s poker table resemble a skyline, a nice graphic touch.
  • Johnny describes his credit cards not working in a Sin City restaurant. I can’t imagine people using credit cards in Sin City.

Summary (26/68): 38%

“Sigh”: my standard reaction after about thirty minutes of this movie. A Dame to Kill For is a black-and-white movie that’s all dull.

Each character desires revenge. Nothing more. The vignettes don’t allow enough further development. Nancy drinks to bury the pain at losing John Hartigan. As if anyone could love Bruce Willis that much.

Johnny seeks to discredit his father and dies for it. His story was a throwaway, a waste of time in a movie already lacking that. This movie would have worked better had it been funnier and not taken itself so seriously.