Let’s assume that Frank Miller’s Sin City series of neo-noir graphic novels are an ironic resurrection of a discarded language. Their stark black-and-whiteness and their dizzying perspective are visually striking vessels for an exploration of vintage noir conventions, and the uncomfortable friction created when the bad old days and their bad old ways strike up an antagonistic relationship with more evolved understandings of human behavior. When all the men are tough guys whose job is to protect or ruin women, and when all the women are prostitutes or man-destroyers, and when the word “dame” is employed in every possible way except to properly announce the arrival of Judi Dench, there's no misunderstanding that you’re moving in reverse.
The Sin City movies, however, seem to feel a freedom from the responsibility of commentary. They just want to look really cool (they do) and behave like a 12 year-old’s version of provocative (they also do).
Like its predecessor, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For features a large cast (Josh Brolin, Jessica Alba, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mickey Rourke, Eva Green, Bruce Willis, Dennis Haysbert, Rosario Dawson and more), all of whom have deep, dark tales of violence, sex and mayhem to enact, bloodless death to indulge, and “sweaty secret things” to do.
They do them. Then it’s done. Context, meaning, and any real reason to exist are lost. If the pulp novels and noir films of the 1940s and 50s were a reaction to the shocking ugliness of World War II, if Samuel Fuller’s 60s masterpieces The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor were steely reflections of that decade’s troubles, the Sin City films are a party, a chance for production designers, make-up artists, and digital effects wizards to do unconventional work, and for actors to go to a costume ball and misbehave. This is the cartoon version of noir, a greatest hits of brutality and idiotic misogyny where everything bounces off weirdly gorgeous surfaces.
And then there’s Mickey Rourke and Eva Green.
Green’s character, Ava Lord, is the woman who looks in the mirror on the wall and asks it to try to come up with even one other non-male who might be in the running for femme-fatale-est of them all. The mirror fails and Green takes control of her character in a way that threatens to upend the balance of silliness. Like Gina Gershon in Showgirls before her, or like Green herself in 300: Rise of An Empire, this is an actor who understands that to be a party to trash is to necessarily burrow in and become that trash. She rolls her eyes, she mocks the camera, she strips herself literally naked in the film’s only successfully brazen moments, and she makes humor where there might otherwise be none.
Meanwhile, Rourke is his own threat. He may be merely re-adapting the wounded animal he created in the first Sin City and then The Wrestler, but he knows where that creature lives and isn't afraid to give grave life and soul to what would otherwise be a collection of tough-guy tics. He, too, unbalances the cartoon, but if that's what it takes to lift this splatterfest of old-timey poses, stabs, and guns that go blammo out of its dull, self-satisfied state, then so be it.