Releasing 9 years after the original film, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is not exactly a sequel the world has been clamouring for and, given its horrible lack of success at the US box office, it will be longer than another decade before we see a new instalment in this universe. This is perhaps a good thing as, despite containing a variety of redeeming features and an admittedly iconic visual style all its own, Dame is an often uncomfortably gratuitous mess with a crippling inability to keep focus on anything for long enough to keep it interesting.
In keeping with the structure of its predecessor, the film is split into three distinct, occasionally intertwining, stories, all set in the lawless, noir-ish Basin City, a perpetually dark and damp place, so full of vices and outlandishly mutated freaks that it wouldn’t feel out of place in a Resident Evil game. The title story, with Eva Green playing the eponymous dame, Ava Lord, features lovestruck private detective Dwight (Josh Brolin in the role played by Clive Owen in the first film) enraptured by this powerful (and constantly naked) woman, even as she exploits and kills those around her to make personal gains. This is not an inherently weak premise for a story but almost every character involved is either so unlikable or so idiotic that it is impossible to root for anyone to come out on top. The same problem, albeit to a lesser extent, affects ‘Nancy’s Last Dance’, the story with the most familiar returning faces as Nancy (Jessica Alba) teams up with the impossibly strong Marv (Mickey Rourke) to bring down Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe), ‘the most powerful man in the state’, whilst haunted by visions of the long-dead John Hartigan (Bruce Willis). This strand is easier to invest in than ‘A Dame to Kill For’, as Roarke is a genuinely hateful villain. However, I again struggled to care about the fates of the heroes of the tale and the whole thing is let down by an ending which uses the most ridiculous deus ex machina this side of Anchorman. Unfortunately, that is not the only case of the film entirely failing to establish its own internal logic or laws of physics.
By far the most interesting story (and the fact that it features new characters not featured in the comic does not shine a positive light on the source material) is ‘A Long Bad Night’. Again featuring Senator Roarke as a villain, our protagonist this time is Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, giving the film’s best, most nuanced performance), a hotshot gambler with preternatural luck and charm. Miles ahead of any of his fellow heroes in terms of likability, Johnny was the only character with a fate I cared about and, inevitably, got the smallest amount of screen time. This highlights a wider problem of the film, which is that it doesn’t know what its strengths and weaknesses are, so whilst it gives us endless lingering shots of women in fetish gear holding big guns (the whole affair is wildly misogynistic, with one of the female leads going so far as to characterise herself as ‘this little piece of ass’ in a voiceover), it fails to dedicate enough time to its most exciting plot thread.
A Dame to Kill For is not entirely without its merits, but, in the end, no amount of CG car chases, violent black and white combat or fantastically shot high-stakes poker can save a film which is so scattershot in its focus and entirely oblivious to its more interesting and entertaining components. Just like the select few people who manage to survive a night there, you’ll end up feeling glad when you leave Sin City.