The modern era of digital cinema that began 21 years ago with Steven Spielberg's photorealistic dinosaurs in Jurassic Park came of age in 1999 with Star Wars:The Phantom Menace. At the time, George Lucas said he believed digital cinema would allow filmmakers to work in a more "painterly" fashion. No longer constrained by what they could make happen in front of a camera in a real space, directors could let their images run wild. Many subsequent big budget science fiction and fantasy films, such as Alphonso Cuarón's Gravity, have had more in common with animation than with traditional narrative cinema. But animators have from the beginning been willing to push their form to its limits, while films that starred humans have almost always focused on looking believable, especially if the stories they told were fantastic.
Among the very few who are willing to test the visual extremes that digital cinema could achieve is Robert Rodriguez. The man who once sold his body to medical experiments to finance El Mariachi now commands a legion of digital artists, and he has no compunctions about deploying them aggressively. In Sin City, his 2005 collaboration with comics old master Frank Miller, he made one of the few comic book movies that actually looked like a comic book. He put Miller's visually striking, hard-boiled world in motion, and catapulted Jessica Alba to the A-list in the process. Sin City had no interest in photorealism, and its striking black-and-white compositions are like nothing else before or since. The sequel, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, often equals the original's visual bravado, but ultimately falls short of its potential.
Reprising their roles from the original are Alba as Nancy, the stripper with a heart of gold; Mickey Rourke as Marv, the musclebound psycho with a heart of gold; Rosario Dawson as Gail, the warrior prostitute with a heart of gold, and Powers Boothe as Senator Roark, Sin City's crime patriarch with a heart of lead. Newcomers this time include Eva Green as Ava, the titular dame to kill for; Jeremy Piven as a wisecracking detective; and Joseph Gordon Levitt as Johnny the supernaturally lucky gambler. A series of cameos include Bruce Willis as the ghost of Hartigan, the last good cop in Sin City who was killed off in the last installment; and Christopher Lloyd as an underworld doctor.
Like the original, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is episodic. But the 2005 installment's brutal short stories added up to a satisfying whole, while the sequel is an incoherent mess. Comics are the ultimate auteur's medium, and having total control over every aspect of a world seems to drive creators insane in a special way. They retreat into the fantasy worlds they create and lose sight of what it means to be an ordinary human. That's why the deep empathy of comics artists such as Scott Pilgrim's Brian Lee O'Malley are so treasured. Even in today's comics-obsessed cinema, Edgar Wright's 2010 O'Malley adaptation, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, is one of the few films outside of the Sin City franchise to go outside the realm of the real, pointing a way forward for comic book moves.
But A Dame To Kill For's Miller-penned script points only backwards. The exaggerated noir tropes that were fun in 2005 are just grindingly grim now. All of the men are hard-drinking, scrappy fighters motivated by revenge. All of the women are burlesque dancers, whores, or femme fatales, which is to say, in Miller's mind, all the same. Everyone swigs vodka straight from the bottle and rockets around in awesome vintage carts before getting thrown from windows by invincible foes until it becomes hard to care about who's doing what to whom. Miller's comic works, which include Batman: The Dark Night Returns and The 300, have been hugely influential on both comics and film, but A Dame To Kill For cements Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises as the last good grimdark comic movie, and no amount of hoochie dancing or beheadings can save it from a descent into tedium.