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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2014)

18. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Co-directed by Frank Miller

After “Sin City” was released to critical acclaim and box office success, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller immediately started talking about a sequel. It was quickly announced that the second film would adapt “A Dame to Kill For,” the second “Sin City” yarn, and also feature new material Miller created specifically for the film. Considering much of the material was already written and Rodriguez' tendency for working quickly, sixteen year old me assumed the film would come out soon after the first “Sin City's” 2005 release. Instead, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” wouldn't hit theaters until 2014, nearly a full decade later. In the intervening nine years, Frank Miller had fully revealed what a nut he is and Robert Rodriguez' work had only gotten more uneven. Though still a cult favorite among nerds and film bros, interest had largely waned in the “Sin City” universe. Yet, due to the Weinsteins' hunger for a box office hit and inertia, the film was pushed through production anyway.

We return to the back allies, dive bars, and ghettos of Basin City. As always, crime, chaos, lust, and desperation are in the air. We are presented with four tales. Affable brute Marv has a violent adventure on a slow Saturday night. Photographer Dwight, who has a violent history with Oldtown, is seduced by ex-girlfriend and millionaire's wife Ava Lord. Dwight realizes too late that the woman has used him, framing him for murder. A mysterious gambler named Johnny hunts down Senator Roark's secret poker night, antagonizing the most corrupt politician in the city. Lastly, Nancy is haunted – metaphorically and literally – by the ghost of John Hartigan. She is soon driven to seek vengeance on Roark, the man she blames for Hartigan's death.

The techniques that the first “Sin City” pioneered where far more common place nine years later. Nevertheless, the sequel carries on the original's hyper-stylized visual approach. There are some cool shots in “A Dame to Kill For.” A neat shot focuses on Dwight as he's thrown from a moving vehicle, his body frozen in mid-flight. Later, his obsession with Ava is illustrated by images of her spinning around his head. Johnny stands on the poker table, sliced apart by the cards the Senator throws at him. Many of these, as in the first movie, are taken directly from Frank Miller's illustrations. Such as Mort, the police officer Ava also seduces, looking out behind white, reflective glasses lens.

While “A Dame to Kill For” is definitely fun to look at, the visual excess eventually wares thin. This is most obvious in the action sequences. Rodrigeuz luxuriates too much in Miho slicing through goons, impossibly spinning through the air in slow motion. Later, a bolt from a crossbow tosses a bad guy high into the air. Simply put, it's silly looking. Of course, the film's ridiculous excess does not end at the visuals. A dead character from the first movie is literally brought back as a ghost, in a world that previously featured no supernatural elements. A random appearance of some bikers provide Marv and Nancy with the guns they need in the last act. Not all of these things can be blamed on Miller's deteriorating discretion. “Just Another Saturday Night,” the opening story, has Marv being brutally assisted by random, unseen people. It's all a little too much.

The first “Sin City” got away with a lot, on account of being an over-the-top, almost comedic pastiche of hard-boiled noir. The sequel is still technically these things but the focus has changed. The trauma of Hartigan's death has made Nancy a revenge-obsessed alcoholic. The attempts Johnny makes to topple Roark's confidence is doomed to fail, brutishly and violently. Marv and Miho dismember and murder without regret, tearing people apart with ease and without thought. There's no love, only seduction and betrayal. There's no catharsis to the violence and excess this time, no grace to the stories. What humor that's left is nasty and cruel. “A Dame to Kill For” is all ugly, all the time.

If “A Dame to Kill For” reveals Frank Miller's hate-filled heart, one hate in particular deserves attention. The first “Sin City” was unquestionably sexist but, again, that could almost be excused due to it being such an over-the-top distillation of noir tropes. “A Dame to Kill For” is far uglier in its distrust and distaste for women. Ava Lord is a venomous woman, who manipulates for greed but because she likes it. While the film makes sure to depict the absolute coldness with which she controls men, it also gets her naked as much as possible. This includes at least two totally gratuitous bath scenes. Yet even that is less unsettling than the brutal but off-handed way a supporting female character is dismembered. It happens off-screen and totally to motivate a man. This macho man misogyny largely manifests by portraying women as either totally evil, helpless victims, or inspiring goddess of righteous fury... All archetypes that are apart from men. 

Honestly, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” isn't even coherent within its own world. As in the first movie, the timeline shifts back and forth between the stories. All the stories take place before “The Hard Goodbye,” obviously because Marv is still alive. Yet other events, such as the fate of Senator Roark, seem to take place further down the “Sin City” timeline. The titular story takes place before the first movie or anything else that happens in this film, as it functions as Dwight's origin. But even within the movie, things do not flow smoothly. “A Dame to Kill For” is present between two parts of “A Long, Hard Night” and “Nancy's Last Dance,” both of which play out concurrently. So not only does the entire sequel not line up totally with the first film, its own stories don't entirely flow together either.

While the segment actually devoted to adapting “A Dame to Kill For” has many of the same problems as the rest of the movie, it's still pulling from a time before Frank Miller completely lost his mind. So there's some half-decent elements there. As sexist a character as she is, there's something to be said for the way Ava Lord is the apotheosis of every femme fatale character to ever appear in a film noir. The rivalry that quickly forms between Marv and Manute, largely because they are two large dudes and experienced killers, is sort of funny. Especially the typically brutish way that is resolved. Dwight's character arc is too nihilistic to be compelling but you can see, conceptually, how that might've been done better.

Compare this to the two new stories Miller wrote strictly for the screen. If written fifteen years ago, back when Miller hadn't totally disappeared up his own ass, you could imagine “The Long, Bad Night” being a solid yarn. In the hands of modern Miller, it's a horribly unfocused story with outrageous digressions and needlessly sick violence. There's cold-bloodied torture. Christopher Lloyd gets a cameo as a heroin-shooting surgeon, helping fix that torture. The weakest element is that Johnny's unexplained luck allows him to succeed without any struggle some times. When focused on the tense confrontations between the Senator and Johnny, “The Long, Bad Night” works pretty well. Its other moments are when it falters.

The worst is yet to come though. Even when compared to some of the later, shittier comics, “Nancy's Last Dance” is the worst “Sin City” yarn. It's always overheated and ridiculous but especially when Nancy and Hartigan's ghost are having corresponding but one-sided conversations. Nancy's descent into alcoholism is really poorly done. Her supposed darkest moment, an especially lecherous dance, is hard to take seriously considering she's already working as a stripper. Hilariously, Senator Roark keeps photos of his dead son around... But only in the mutated, “Yellow Bastard” form. It's been established that the Roark family is untouchable in their power. Which makes the ease with which Nancy and Marv take their revenge on him seem utterly anti-climatic.

Rodriguez was not able to get every original cast member from “Sin City” back. Devon Aoki as Miho is replaced by Jamie Chung. Dennis Haysbert, with his thunderous voice, steps in for the deceased Michael Clarke Duncan. Michael Madsen is replaced by Jeremy Piven, in the minor part of Bob. The absence that stings the most is Clive Owen. Josh Brolin replaces him as Dwight, who comes off as a totally different character. Most of the other notable new additions amount to cameos. Famous faces like Lloyd, Ray Liotta, Juno Temple, Lady Gaga, and Alexa Vega streak by within minutes. You don't even see Stacy Keach's face, as he's buried under make-up while playing grotesque crime lord Wallenquist.

Ultimately and unsurprisingly, Eva Green steals the show. Green specializes in being the best part of mediocre films. As Ava Lord, she's a smoldering machine of evil seduction. As for the returning cast, not many of them distinguish themselves. Powers Booth is given an expanded role, hamming it up nicely as the vitriolic Senator Roark. Rosario Dawson is similarly hammy as Gail, a largely thankless part. Marv is still the part Mickey Rourke was born to play, even if the facial prosthetics fit him in a notably awkward way now. But Jessica Alba's histrionic overacting, when paired with the sweaty script, makes for an embarrassing part. Bruce Willis is glum, Joseph Gordon Levitt doesn't get much of a chance to express himself, and Jamie King has a glorified cameo.

I can vaguely recall, right after “Sin City” came out, Miller and Rodriguez were planning a trilogy. After “A Dame to Kill For,” a third movie would've adapted “To Hell and Back,” Miller's final and most excessive “Sin City” yarn. (Johnny Depp was being bandied about as a possible star.) If “A Dame to Kill For” had come out a few years after the original, it probably would've done alright and been happily eaten up by passionate fans. Waiting nearly a decade caused the brand to become obsolete. Thus, “A Dame to Kill For” flopped at the theaters and received very negative reviews. Though there was rumblings of a TV series – not the worst idea – it seems likely that we won't be revisiting Basin City any time soon. It's hard to be too disappointed by that, considering the sequel's lackluster quality. [Grade: C-]

Robert Rodriguez is always talking about new projects. Over the years, he's been attached to unrealized films like a new take on Ralph Bakshi's "Fire and Ice," a sci-fi thriller called "Nerveracker," a remake of "Barbarella," a new "Red Sonja" film (Both of which would've starred Rose McGowan), and live action adaptations of "Jonny Quest" and "The Jetsons."

So the dude is always busy. Which makes the five year break he took after his last three features flop unprecedented, if not surprising. But it looks like Rodriguez is coming back in a big way this year. Because James Cameron is busy making "Avatar" sequels nobody demanded, he handed his long simmering adaptation of manga "Battle Angel" over to Rodriguez. It comes out in a few weeks and will probably flop but I think it looks awesome. Beyond that, Rodriguez has also made a seven thousand dollar horror film called "Red 11," co-written by a now teenage Racer Rodriguez and inspired by his dad's days as a guinea pig for medical testing. That premieres at SXSW later this year and could be a return to form. (Oh yeah, he also made a coqnac advertisement that won't be released until 2115. Really ambitious of Rodriguez and his producers to assume Earth won't be a burned out husk by then.)

As for this Director Report Card? It was exhausting. Watching Rodriguez' hyperactive movies back to back was akin to downing eighteen pixie sticks in a row. While a lot of his earlier films are still fun, the quality of the guy's work has definitely become shakier over the last decade. Here's hoping "Battle Angel" and "Red 11" shake things up. But, as always, thank you for reading.

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