There's the nihilism of Sin City. A place where wounded men have to remind themselves to "never let the monster out," and a woman can "makes slaves of men," and even "good men" are turned on by a woman's tale of rape (which she invented, of course, because this is Sin City, where you can't trust a dame). A place where men are nothing but how they can use their rage, and women are nothing but how they can use their bodies.
None of it is nice. But it pales in comparison to the nihilism of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, the latest story about this place, consisting of little more than vignettes on vengeance and cruel parades of sociopathic power performed as gleefully ultraviolent shadow plays. A movie where disjointed parts never connect into a cohesive whole and instead merely bounce around in a random, nasty game of pinball. Is it paradoxical to suggest that even nihilistic stories need a reason to be told?
It's been almost 10 years since the magnificently brutal Sin City, and that's part of why this unnecessary sequel feels so empty and exhausting (and not in a good way). Back then, the oozing corruption and despairing hopelessness of Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's CGI-noir portrait of Basin City, the hellish world of Miller's graphic novels, felt excitingly pertinent: we'd been living in that world since at least 9/11. But it's another decade on, and the real world has gotten even more unendurably angry, reactionary, and mean-spirited in the interim. I don't need my movies to be all rainbows and fairy dust, but Dame is monstrous and merciless merely for the sake of merciless monstrosity. Even the vigilante justice it thinks its characters are dishing out — justice that is, I suppose, meant to make us derive some pleasure out of the savagery we're witnessing — is cold and vacant.
Dame is all ugly posturing. Mal mots of fatalistic cynicism get no justification in the plot, as with Josh Brolin's Dwight, the one worrying about letting his monster out; yet we never know what his monster is all about. Stories get set up and then go nowhere, like how hulking Marv (Mickey Rourke, buried under facial prosthetics) starts out unable to remember his own name or how he ended up with a bullet in him; we never discover the deal with the amnesia. Potentially intriguing characters appear and disappear, having done precisely nothing.
For extra bonus vacuity and confusion, the various plot threads here aren't happening simultaneously: some are sequels to events in Sin City and others are prequels. I'd never have guessed that not only is Brolin supposed to be the same character Clive Owen played in the first film, but that Brolin's version is an earlier, younger one. Meanwhile, the storyline featuring Powers Boothe's vicious politician, Jessica Alba's haunted stripper, and Bruce Willis' cop is clearly following on from events in the first film.
It gets so that even the unique visual style of the film seems little more than a gimmick. The black-and-white, comic-book atmosphere, created as CGI animation for human actors to wander around in, is splashed with vivid color, mostly quite urgent: flames and blood and lipstick and police sirens get highlighted. It feels like Dame is playing with filmmaking toys it doesn't really understand; both Rodriguez and Miller are credited as directors, though the lack of discipline makes me suspect what we get is more Miller's work than Rodriguez's.
On the plus side — pretty much the only plus side — Dame features both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Eva Green, two of the most bewitchingly magnetic actors working on-screen today. They're never together, alas: that might be too combustible even for Basin City. It's kind of sad, though, to see Gordon-Levitt's thread go so desperately nowhere, and Green's into such toxically clichéd misogyny. What a shame that crashing and burning for no good reason is a tradition in this town. ♦