In Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, scandal, murder, betrayal and mystery surround the lives of those swept up in a crime-filled underworld. Co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller reunite to bring Miller's visually stunning "Sin City" graphic novels back to the screen in the follow-up to the groundbreaking film, FRANK MILLER'S SIN CITY (2005). Weaving together two of Miller's classic stories with new tales, the town's most hard boiled citizens cross paths with some of its more reviled inhabitants.
Being quite the fan of Frank Miller's 'Sin City' comic books (I refuse to make them sound like something they're not, so I won't be calling them "graphic novels" any time soon) and the cinematic adaptation that he made in 2005 with filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, I had high hopes for the big screen 'Sin City' sequel, 'A Dame to Kill For.' Unfortunately, neither the comic book fan nor the movie fan inside me were pleased with the outcome.
Think back to the first 'Sin City.' Remember how it followed several characters through several stories in a completely non-linear fashion? You'd see a character meet his/her bloody end, but that same character would pop up again in another person's story that was set prior to him/her getting blasted. Featuring the same actors in the same roles, it wasn't a problem. It didn't confuse the audience. It was easy to connect the dots and see the big picture. We were onboard and we "got it." Having said that, along comes 'A Dame to Kill For' nine years later and now we're expected to not only remember those characters and their timelines, but it's assumed that we'll be able to pick up right where we left off despite a good chunk of the actors from 'Sin City' not reprising their roles in 'A Dame to Kill For.' Much more than you can ever imagine, it gets messy – but that's not even the worst part about it. Despite the main two writers and directors of the first returning the second installment, 'A Dame to Kill For' feels like cheap studio-fueled sequel made by anyone but the guys who delivered the perfect original film.
While the stories of 'A Dame to Kill For' are completely non-linear, the movie itself doesn't follow the format of the first. 'Sin City' featured bookends with Josh Hartnett playing a smooth contracted killer in stylized, cigarette-smoking cool sequences. The sequel doesn't. Instead, it opens with a short about Marv (Mickey Rourke) cracking the skulls of punk frat boys and closes abruptly without any sign that what we've just seen was the climax. Being 22 minutes shorter than the first film, closing credits truly begin rolling when least expected. It's like the end of 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail,' only unintentionally.
Aside from the stand-alone Marv intro, 'A Dame to Kill For' tells three more stories about the corrupt city's dirty underbelly. First, there's the new story titled "A Long Bad Night" which Frank Miller wrote exclusively for the film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Johnny, a charismatic gambler whose luck never runs out – that is, until maybe tonight. This not-too-long tale is broken into two segments. After the first half comes to a close, we get to the titular story "A Dame to Kill For," which is where the bulk of the movie lies. It's highly problematic, so I'll describe it's plot and issues momentarily. While the first movie trimmed down the longer stories and made them available in their entirety on the special edition DVD (and later Blu-ray), Miller and Rodriguez tell this full story from beginning to end, never trimming the fat. Presumably because of that, no stand-alone nor extended versions are featured on this Blu-ray.
After "A Dame to Kill For," we cut to the second half of "A Long Bad Night." When that short tale wraps up, we bleed into the final story, one from which small seeds have been planted along the way. "Nancy's Last Dance" – which was also exclusively written for the sequel – follows Jessica Alba's stripper character following the death of Hartigan (Bruce Willis) at the close of the original film. She's broken and depressed with rage boiling in her blood. Nothing but revenge can ease her pain.
Of the three main stories, "A Long Bad Night" is easily the best and most entertaining. The scale and scope of its story is quite small compared to what we're used to seeing in Sin City, but it works. It's refreshingly original and very fun – but there is absolutely no need for it to be split into two parts. If anything, the cut kills its momentum. "Nancy's Last Dance" isn't bad either, but it's hardly a worthy closer for a 'Sin City' saga. As poorly placed as those two stories are in the grand scheme, their editing and placement is nothing compared to the messy main tale, "A Dame to Kill For."
No matter how well you know the first 'Sin City' movie, there's not a chance in hell you're going to be able to follow "A Dame to Kill For" without having read the comic book. You'd never know it, but Josh Brolin's leading character Dwight is actually the same character that Clive Owen played in the first movie. It's actually perfectly fitting to the plot that another actor play the role in 'A Dame to Kill For,' as the prequel's tale would actually benefit from having another actor play him; however, Owen's return for the sequel is absolutely crucial to the plot. My statements may seem contradictory and may make no sense at all without giving away major spoilers, but they make more sense than the unexplained messy finale to this specific story. In it, Brolin plays a brute whose life capsizes when a manipulative spider woman (Eva Green) from his past returns. While this story should be captivating and puzzling, it's far too slow and mediocre to have slapped in its entirety in the middle of the feature film. Owen isn't the only non-returning actor to muck-up this should-be easily followable story. Dennis Haysbert stars as Michael Clarke Duncan's role from the first movie. (There was no way getting around re-casting that bit.) Jeremy Piven takes over for Michael Madsen in a brutally boring subplot. And Jamie Chung unfittingly takes over for Devon Aoki. In the process, all of Miho's violent grace and and likeability go out the window.
I'm all for this style of black & white, gritty, violent, dirty and vile style of filmmaking, but there are far too many inconsistencies between this and the original 'Sin City.' For example, the first movie featured little nudity despite the comics featuring loads and loads of completely naked characters. The way the first movie was made kept it from becoming gratuitous and overkill. 'A Dame to Kill For,' on the other hand, goes in the completely opposite direction. Eva Green spends more time on-screen completely in the buff than she does with clothes. Being a straight male, I never thought I'd say this, but there's a point where it becomes too much. 'A Dame to Kill For' crosses that point and just keeps on plugging along. It feels like the 'Sin City' sequel was made by two curious 14-year-old boys and not the men who hit an absolute home run nine years ago.
I expected to love 'A Dame to Kill For.' With the original filmmakers returning, I assumed that it would be just as creative, fun and entertaining as the first – but it sorely misses the mark. I never saw Frank Miller's 'The Spirit,' but I imagine that it felt exactly like this: a carbon copy replica of everything that worked well in the first 'Sin City.' Not only is it a let-down for me, a guy who knows the comics extremely well, but it's damn near impossible to follow unless you know them too. What should have been great is nothing more than a cheap sequel worth forgetting about, a title that you won't want to add to your Blu-ray collection no matter how much you love the property.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Via Anchor Bay, Miramax has given 'Sin City: A Dame to Kill For' a single standard Blu-ray release for both the 3D and 2D versions. It's impossible to purchase one version without getting the other. This three-disc combo pack include the bare-bones 3D Blu-ray (BD-50), a 2D Blu-ray (BD-50) with special features, a DVD copy and a code for an Ultraviolet copy. The Blu-ray discs are Region A locked come stacked atop one another on the right inside panel of this eco-Lite Elite keepcase. The DVD copy is housed on the left inside panel. If you purchase this set early on, you'll get a nice glossy embossed and reflective cardboard slip cover along with it. Aside from unskippable Anchor Bay and Weinstein vanity reels, nothing plays before the animated and music-filled main menu.
Because the only way to purchase the Blu-ray includes both the 3D and 2D discs, this review will cover both versions of the film.
First, let's talk 3D, which comes in the form of a 1080p/MVC MPEG-4 encode. Knowing how much Rodriguez loves his digital equipment and how much of the post-production work he does himself, you'd assume that his 3D transfer would be demo-worthy and squeaky clean – but it's not. Anyone who says otherwise hasn't watched the 3D Blu-ray. While the sharpness, the clarity, the black levels and the fine details are all there, the 3D layering itself is unarguably lacking. Sure, we get plenty of eye-popping effects that make great use of the third dimension – like hundreds of shards of glass flying at you while watching Marv bust through a squad car's windshield; like countless falling snowflakes filling the screen at levels that range anywhere from close foreground to deep background; like amazing point-of-view shots from the front of a convertible speeding along a highway bordering a cliff – but there are plenty of bad 3D shots that undo the should-be perfect presentation.
Many settings like bars and hot tubs feature smoke and steam in the air. Instead of appearing natural - like when Marv and Nancy light up a cigarette just prior to the movie's climax - under those two settings, smoke and steam floats in unnatural, unmoving blobby two dimensional clouds. The cigarette smoke carries a nice 3D look, but the blobs look like childish painted renderings of smoke and steam that might be hanging behind or in front of the actors with fishline. It's flat and, frankly, bad-looking.
Much of the action in 'Sin City' is set in front of jet black backgrounds. Considering the amount of starkly contrasting objects in the foreground and background, you'd assume that if ghosting (or crosstalk) was going to be a problem, that it would occur consistently. While it actually is an issue, it doesn't happen often – but often enough to be pointed out. Is it ironic that Hartigan's ghost actually warrants ghosting towards the end of the movie?
My biggest beef with the 3D results from poorly converted bits. Too many times to count, there are inconsistencies within the depths of the pieces that make up the entire image. For example, a city-scape shot shows building faces and rooftops gradually moving outward towards the horizon. A building that is located behind another building will oddly appear on a plain that's closer than the building in front of it. This same issue arises with extreme close-ups of faces. The facial instance that stuck out the most to me is one in which Brolin's eyeballs appear to be much closer than his eyelids. The movie's final scene takes place in a fancy room. A lampshade in the background hovers in the space because the stand on which it sits was lazily converted to be part of the wall behind it. Many times, heads appear to unnaturally extend much father forward from the shoulders than humanly possible. Heads float around often. All of these issues combined make 'A Dame to Kill For' an extremely distracting experience in 3D.
The 2D video quality, on the other hand, is absolutely perfect. With a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode, details, textures and fine features are impeccable. As intended to be, the randomly occurring colorized bits explode with vibrancy amidst the mostly black & white settings. Fortunately, the colorization is gorgeous on both the 3D and 2D discs. Had there been a 2D-only release of 'A Dame to Kill For,' then it would have carried a flawless five-star rating. Damned be the 3D transfer.
'A Dame to Kill For' features a fantastic 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that's perfect no matter in which dimension you watch the movie. The opening Troublemaker Studios vanity reels kicks it off with an explosion that throws the sounds of flames seamlessly whooshing all around the room, back and forth. From that opening moment, it's obvious that what's to follow will aurally please you immensely.
Since the first film, I've loved the smooth and gentle jazz that underlies all of the non-intense moments. The drums, stand-up bass and saxophone ring out clearly and make the CG city streets feel like the icky and sticky desert slums they're supposed to be. Action scenes (including the thrusty tunes that ring out at Kadie's strip club) become a lot livelier. Distorted electric guitars jump in and rumbly bass is brought to the front of the mix. No matter which version of the scoring you enjoy, it always sounds great.
As you'd expect from a movie that's carried along by voiced-over narration, the vocals are rich. Especially in the narration, you'll hear a depth and texture to the voices of Rourke, Gordon-Levitt, Brolin and Alba that you didn't know existed. There is so much to be heard and, no matter how loud the effects and music get, you'll hear it all.
But the most exciting part of the mix is easily the effects. I watched 'A Dame to Kill For' in theaters, but heard effects while watching the Blu-ray in my home system that I completely missed while watching on the big screen. Almost every movement and action has a sound associated with if – even if it's as subtle as could be. If Johnny slaps his hand of cards onto the wooden poker table, then a quick bassy blast emits from the subwoofer. If he walks past a sign post lining the sidewalk, then a quiet whoosh blows by seamlessly down the right side of the theater. And just like the tiny insignificant moments, the load action-packed ones carry brilliant effects mixing. An exploding car features hundreds of individual sounds of items breaking, wizzing, colliding or falling. If Manute unexpectedly starts firing an uzi off-screen, you're going to jump when you hear it instantly ring out the right surround channel. And going back to great 3D moment that Marv bursts into the windshield of a cop car, get ready to hear the sound of each individual piece of 3D glass as it breaks free, flies through the air and collides with other objects.
If only the folks who did the audio knew how to convert images to 3D.
After nine years, our 'Sin City' sequel is finally here. Too bad it's nothing special. 'A Dame to Kill For' should have been titled 'A Sequel to Cry Over.' Sloppy, poorly edited, slow and repetitious, it feels like a studio-forced sequel from filmmakers that had nothing to do with the original picture, yet try to imitate its creative and artistic style. It's overkill. Too little way too late. And unless you know the actual comic books very well, then you're going to be confused by its clunky main storyline. The Blu-ray release offers both the 3D and 2D Blu-ray discs together and is the only version to be released, so you cannot get one without the other. The 3D transfer is problematic, but the 2D version is flawless. The audio mix is brilliant, nothing short of perfection. The special features are definitely lacking. There's nothing extensive or worth geeking about here. The original 'Sin City' Blu-ray featured both the theatrical cut of the film and the stand-alone extended single stories, but 'A Dame to Kill For' doesn't get that same treatment. Rodriguez usually includes a "cooking school" feature, but there's not one here. If you love the original 'Sin City' and/or the comics, then skip 'A Dame to Kill For.' Seeing this lackluster sequel will tarnish your image of the first film and the books. If curiosity overcomes you, give it a rent first. Whatever you do, don't blind buy.