LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - It may be in 3D this time around, but Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's monotone, monochrome comicbook universe feels flatter than ever in "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For." Rare indeed is the movie that features this many bared breasts, pummeled crotches and severed noggins and still leaves you checking your watch every 10 minutes. But that's the dubious accomplishment of this visually arresting but grimly repetitive exercise in style, set against a sordid neo-noir landscape populated almost exclusively by tormented tough guys and femme-fatale fetish objects. Nearly a decade after the first "Sin City" grossed more than $158 million worldwide, it's doubtful whether the directors' overlapping fanbases can muster the same level of excitement for a picture about which the best one can really say is, "It sure beats 'The Spirit.' "
Set in motion not long after the 2005 release of "Sin City," but delayed following the commercial failure of Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's "Grindhouse" (2007), this long-gestating sequel proudly announces itself, like the first film, as a work of slavish fidelity to its source. The full title is "Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," as if to reassure those pulp purists in the audience that nothing they see and hear, from the silky black-and-white images to the sub-Spillane hard-boiled dialogue, will deviate from the graphic novelist's original vision. Still, Miller has adapted his own work with a slightly freer hand this time: Two of the four twisted tales presented here were written specifically for the movie, though they're all of a narrative piece, revealing loose connections with each other as well as with the characters and events of the first film.
Some viewers may be a bit fuzzy on those earlier plot points, a possibility that the filmmakers seem to have taken into account. The opening vignette, adapted from Miller's short story "Just Another Saturday Night," begins in a haze of confusion: The hulking fighter known as Marv (once again played with an outsized schnoz and a smidgin of soul by Mickey Rourke) awakens somewhere near the Sin City projects, with no memory of how he got there. A few jolts of violence aside, this prologue mainly serves to reacquaint us with Miller and Rodriguez's high-contrast aesthetic -- a sophisticated merging of live-action and green screen in which shades of gray are offset by daubs of digital color, accentuating, say, the red light of a police car or the golden glow of a stripper's blonde wig. The story also re-establishes Marv as the most indelible fixture of this highly artificial world, even if Rourke's growling voiceover seems directed mainly at those viewers who found Christian Bale's Batman too comprehensible. If gravel could get lung cancer, it would sound like Marv.
More nasty doings await in the straight-to-screen yarn "The Long Bad Night," about a confident young cardsharp named Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who arrives in town and promptly makes his way to Kadie's Saloon. (This seedy joint serves as a central hub of activity throughout, all the better to maintain a steady stream of gyrating, scantily clad background entertainment.) After playing a few slots and picking up a stripper (Julia Garner), Johnny brazenly begins a game of poker with the ruthless Sen. Roark (Powers Boothe), only to see his winning hand quickly become a losing one. Fans of the first film may recall Roark as the father of the notorious Yellow Bastard, and as Johnny soon finds out in excruciatingly painful ways, this powerful politico is not someone to be crossed or underestimated.
Johnny's story is momentarily suspended by the film's longest chapter, a 45-minute potboiler adapted from "A Dame to Kill For," the second book in the "Sin City" cycle. The dame in question is Ava Lord (Eva Green), a temptress who seems to have been modeled on the likes of Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity" and Jane Greer in "Out of the Past," then camped up several notches. (The crimson lips are fine; the emerald-green contact lenses, not so much.) Reaching out to her beaten-down ex-lover, private investigator Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin, taking over for Clive Owen), Ava begs him to free her from Damian (Marton Csokas), her abusive billionaire husband, and his henchman, a massive subhuman automaton called Manute (Dennis Haysbert, taking over for Michael Clarke Duncan). From there the movie quickly devolves into window-smashing, eyeball-gouging mayhem, every blow landing with a Dolby-fied crunch, and often accompanied by a burst of white blood that looks more like a bird-turd explosion.
Like most stories that come out Sin City, "A Dame to Kill For" is about a broken a man unable to resist the spell of a woman in trouble. (If Brolin is the movie's tragic hero, then his comic counterpart is Christopher Meloni as Mort, a cop who falls pathetically in love with Ava.) Saving the girl, of course, means stalking her, possessing her and even smacking her around a little, and Ava makes a more willing lust object than most: Alluringly dressed in a shimmering blue coat the first time we see her, she thereafter develops a peculiar allergy to clothing of any kind. Green's extended nude scenes have already accounted for much of the film's pre-release ink, and they certainly represent a key selling point, even if the peek-a-boo framing and clever use of chiaroscuro (which surely merit an Oscar for best achievement in genital blurring) will leave some in the audience feeling more teased than turned on.
Which may be as fitting a way as any to describe the peculiar overall effect of "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," which clocks in 23 minutes shorter than its predecessor yet feels far more enervating. This is a movie that, in attempting to update the tawdry pleasures of classic American crime fiction, doesn't hesitate to indulge its characters' peeping-tom fantasies as well as ours. In scene after scene, voyeurism is less a subtext than a narrative constant, whether it's a kinky tryst being secretly photographed from above, a woman diving naked into a moonlit swimming pool, or a squad of vigilante vixens (the familiar faces include Rosario Dawson and Jaime King, while Jamie Chung steps in for Devon Aoki) roaming the streets with crossbows while modeling the latest in designer dominatrix wear.
As ultra-stylized comicbook movies go, there's no denying that Rodriguez and Miller's lurid canvas has been realized with a certain single-minded purity. (Rodriguez again handled lensing and editing duties, in addition to collaborating on the score with Carl Thiel.) But it's a deliberately airless, static vision, devoid of honest thrills and, aside from a few flakes of stereoscopic snow, absent the novelty that made the first "Sin City" so fascinating, at least before it bogged down in its own sadism. Once again the filmmakers have smothered Miller's mean-street archetypes in a thick patina of cool -- equal parts cut-rate nihilism and self-admiring style -- but as a hundred Tarantino knockoffs have long since established, cool is not enough. It takes at least a sliver of human interest to make a noir pastiche more than the sum of its influences, and anything resembling authentic feeling has been neatly airbrushed away from this movie's synthetic surface. The endless striped shadows that creep into Steve Joyner and Caylah Eddleblute's production design don't express the characters' inner darkness; they merely put it in quotes.
There are a few fine performances here. Whether wielding a pistol or a wrench, Boothe is a suitably menacing villain; Rourke and Brolin make a likable ass-kicking duo; and Lady Gaga has a nice, quick cameo as a sympathetic barmaid. But the main attraction here is Green, who, in addition to serving as the film's most eye-popping design element, invests Ava with a wild-eyed intensity worthy of Medea, adding another to the actress' gallery of murderous screen sirens following her performances in "300: Rise of an Empire" and "Dark Shadows." It seems almost churlish to point out that Ava is merely the most extreme manifestation of the picture's seriously stunted view of human femininity, given that its take on masculinity is in the end no less wearyingly reductive.
The fourth and final story here is "Nancy's Last Dance," in which Nancy (Jessica Alba), the stripper terrorized by Yellow Bastard in the previous pic, seeks to avenge her late protector, John Hartigan (a spectral, underused Bruce Willis). It's a late, limp attempt to turn Alba's character from an exploited figure into an empowered one, but by this point, we no longer seem to be watching a movie so much as wandering blindfolded through a series of interconnected torture chambers, where the spectacle of human suffering is ever present, yet always kept at an antiseptic remove. In the words of one tough-sounding character, "Sin City's where you go with your eyes open, or you don't come out at all." It's not a bad slogan, though in retrospect, it sounds less like a plausible threat than an invitation to take a nap.