A hard drug for the eyes

Half-baroque, half-graffiti, Sin City: A Dame To Kill plunges us into the empty, eternal midnight

This is a tar pit. This is the eternal midnight, the thrash metal nocturne. This is some of the most striking black-and-white imagery, half-baroque, half-graffiti, dripping and saturated with lush shadows. This is also empty. The hollowness of it all is a badge of pride for the filmmakers. With Sin City: A Dame to Kill For — like the first Sin City in 2005 — you can't take your eyes off the hyper-stylised fetishism on-screen (or at least off Eva Green's strategically obscured body parts), but you'll find it difficult to remember anything afterwards. This is instant gratification, a hard drug for the eyes.

Eva Green and Josh Brolin in a scene from Sin City: A Dame To Kill For .

In the story department, things are pedestrian, even lazy. The obvious stratagem of Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller — who share a directing credit, though the source came from Miller's comic book series — is to skirt the border between homage and parody, between blind devotion and self-knowledge, meanwhile using visual artifices to elevate the entire experience. I don't think it works as well here as it did in the first instalment, not because of the technique, which is even more polished, but because the fashion of high trash, of upgrading low-brow, hard-boiled pulp into high-end pornography isn't as fresh as it was in the mid-2000s. This new Sin City feels like an overwrought exercise.

Like in the first film, there are three story threads here, loosely connected by the theme of revenge. In the first, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Johnny, a hotshot gambler who turns up in Basin City (with the "Ba" dropped) and challenges the fascistic Senator Rork (Powers Boothe) at the poker table. Johnny wins at cards, but will lose something more dear to him. In the second and longest episode, Josh Brolin plays Dwight, a photographer lured into the erotic snare of Ava (Eva Green, the "dame to kill for" of the title). In the third and weakest, Jessica Alba plays the vixen strip-teaser Nancy. With the help of the rough-boned, square-jawed brute Marv (Mickey Rourke, in heavy prosthetics), Nancy pursues her own revenge campaign against Senator Rork, while the ghost of Bruce Willis from the first film keeps appearing to remind her of his mortal fate — as well as to merit his name and face on the film's poster.

In Miller's black hole, the men are gullible, even sentimental, while the women are red-lipped lionesses in bondage wardrobes. Green, as Ava, presides over the nocturnal seduction with her now-familiar witchy eroticism; she's a European actress, meaning her relaxed attitude towards nudity heats up the film in which, naturally, American stars would never want to walk around bare-breasted. By tradition, most comic books and graphic novels play to the fantasy of boys who yearn for adventures, sexy babes and imaginary violence. In Sin City, the patented sadist Marv, the cocky brat Johnny — not to mention the hopeless romantic Dwight — are teenage boys at heart. Ava, seething with mystery and malice, is the only real adult here, a sorceress who metes out punishment on the crybabies around her.

But that's not so important. Just like the hint of class resentment in the story — Sin City is divided into the ghetto-like Old Town and a wealthier neighbourhood of gated properties — isn't so pronounced. The agenda here is to transfix you with the sophisticated play of light and shadow, the nightmarish chiaroscuro, and the post-Gothic architecture of this glum city populated by half-humans. Sin City is rooted in American film noir of 1940s, only exaggerated into the near-grotesque.

In classic noirs — from Out Of The Past to Detour and The Big Sleep — what strikes us most is the weaknesses of the characters, who often emerge as real human only when their fatal descents are complete. In Sin City, there are only ghosts, or cartoon ghosts who try to behave like humans. They don't quite succeed, even though you can't look away from them for a second.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist