The greatest sin of "Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" is the way its high style is brought low — visually stunning but emotionally vapid, unrelentingly violent, its splendiferous comic book cast mostly squandered.
It's the very speed at which something so artful in design, so ironic in idea, turns so tedious that is so nettling. It makes Sin City a town you might consider driving by. If you choose to linger, be prepared for a constant rain of blows, bullets, blackjacks and the slicing, dicing and stabbing of swords, knives, broken glass — you get the idea.
Gratefully, the blood is only occasionally red — for dramatic effect. It mostly puddles white in contrast to the people who fade to black, both disappearing into the virtual reality of comic book pages. The first few times the technique is intriguing, almost mesmerizing, but before long the thrill is gone.
The freshness factor is always the burden of a sequel, particularly when its predecessor was so provocatively arresting. In the nine years since "Sin City" hit, Miller's style has become a widely copied touchstone — that mash-up of grainy black-and-white hyper-reality and splashes of intense color able to set the mood in an instant. But it means "A Dame to Kill For" has not one but countless tough acts to follow.
Still that doesn't mean we weren't hoping Miller and co-director Robert Rodriguez would find a way to up the creative ante. In some ways they have, in many more they haven't. It is why it's easy to get impatient with the failings of the return trip to Sin City, where the hoods are over-dressed, the dames are barely dressed, and in Eva Green's case, usually undressed.
The melodrama is florid beyond belief — and without relief — marked by a sort of noir-drenched jingoistic lingo that has you laughing at how far this bad apple has fallen from the Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler tree. Rather than another groundbreaker, "A Dame to Kill For" is one more poser trying to be performance art.
The film hangs its hat on several story lines — two old, two new — inspired by Miller's crime comic book series. Mickey Rourke's Marv, "Sin City's" version of a guardian angel from hell, kicks things off in "Just Another Saturday Night." He's confused and contemplating just how he got there as some hapless dupe is being doused and set afire. First Marv deals with the gang, then he deals with the dupe.
Next up is Johnny's story. In "The Long, Bad Night," Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the cocky young gambling man out to take down the most dastardly villain to be found, Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). Winning comes with a price that includes pliers and excessive sound effects.
It's all just a tease for the main attraction. The dame to kill for is Ava Ford (Green), and the guy she wants to kill for her is Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin). You know in an instant that she's the one to watch: She gets the best dress, a shimmery blue '40s-era number, and has the perfect pout perfectly accentuated by blood red lipstick.
Those luxurious long black waves are perfectly coiffed. Her voice is perfectly seductive. Even her fingernails are perfectly shaped, as is the body underneath all the artifice. The filmmakers take great care to expose it in one scene after another — on bed, in bath, in pool, on chair, just about anywhere.
Green makes the most of it, stealing all the thunder, not easy to do especially from Brolin's dark and demon-driven dude. This fine actor does what he can with what he's been given, as do so many others in "Sin City." But whatever skills he has, cheesy dialogue delivered at a dreary pace and in dreary tones undermine it.
Jessica Alba's emotionally tortured stripper, a regular at Kadie's Club Pecos, wraps things up in "Nancy's Last Dance." Like the other babes in boyland, she may be armed and dangerous and all about asserting herself, but it's hard to take the female empowerment bit too seriously with all the bad bondage wear.
About half the cast is new, the other half we met in 2005's "Sin City," like Bruce Willis' Jack Hartigan, still dead but back and looking out for Nancy. Like so much litter, there are excellent actors everywhere that I'm not going to get around to mentioning, but you know who you are.
As to which "Sin City" is the better one, the first will likely be remembered longer. But in the sequel Rodriguez has opened up Miller's stylized look in dramatic ways: There are doors for the actors to move though, but no walls. It keeps the action and the interactions in a constant state of suspension — one of the director's better choices.
The characters carry the wages of Sin City on their faces; the makeup budget must have been horrific. The sins of the filmmakers run deeper. There is an interesting kernel of a story about beauty, betrayal and brutality inside each of the film's scenarios and a cast that could handle anything thrown at it. But the kernel never pops, and all we're really left with is a whole lot of neo-noir corn.
'Sin City: A Dame to Kill For'
MPAA rating: R for strong, brutal, stylized violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: In general release