REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
The release of “Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” has revived interest in the phenomenon of film noir.
What exactly is film noir? The question engenders disputes among film aficionados.
The golden age of film noir emerged in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s, during WW II and its aftermath. They had a distinctive look, shadowy black and white chiaroscuro, and embodied a pervasively jaundiced attitude towards the human condition.
For some, these films were the logical successor to standard Depression-era crime dramas. Contemporaneously, these films were often dismissed as generic melodramas. The scholarly 1955 book, “Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953” (A Panorama of American Film Noir), by French critics, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, attempted to resolve the issue. Instead, it merely fanned the flames of controversy among cinephiles.
Frank Miller’s graphic novels capture the quintessence of film noir. Director, Robert Rodriguez, has faithfully limned Miller’s source material. However, Rodriguez is a proponent of cutting edge technology. He uses CGI and a visual motif, which includes bright splashes of chromaticity. Both are anathema to traditional film noir.
In 2005, Rodriguez made the original “Sin City,” using the first, third, and fourth graphic novels in Miller’s series for Dark Horse Comics. However, Rodriguez insisted that this cinematic collaborations with are translations of Miller’s work, not adaptations. Accordingly, Miller eschewed a screenwriting credit for the film. Moreover, Rodriguez insisted that Miller and Quentin Tarantino, who helmed a segment of the film, both receive a screenwriting credit. When the Director’s Guild of America balked at Rodriguez’s demand, he quit the organization in protest.
After a nine-year hiatus, Rodriguez and Miller have teamed up again. Their latest collaboration consists of several interrelated stories, populated by returning and newly introduced characters. One of the smaller components of the film, which forms the film’s prologue, is based on the short story “Just Another Saturday Night,” which was collected in “Booze, Broads, & Bullets,” the sixth book in the series. The primary narrative framework derives from Miller’s second story in the Dark Horse series, “A Dame to Kill For.” In addition, Miller created two original stories, “The Long Bad Night” and “Nancy’s Last Dance,” exclusively for the film.
The film kicks off with the fan-fave, “Just Another Saturday Night.” In it, we are reintroduced to Marv (Mickey Rourke). He is arguably the most hardcore macho, physically intimidating, and fearless presence in the film. Marv is a 300-pound wrecking ball, who loves to fight. He frequents Kadie’s a dive bar. There, Marv serves as a chivalrous protector of all the gals, who work there. One night, he leaves Kadie’s and encounters four frat boys. They are pouring gasoline fluid on a homeless vagrant, as a prelude to burning him alive. Marv is not content to merely deter them. As is his wont, he chases after them and corners the craven cowards in a rough part of town, far from their cloistered campus. This exciting vignette takes place before we even see opening credits.
Marv might also be the film’s most visually engaging creation. Once upon a time, Rourke was a conventionally handsome, Hollywood actor. He played the romantic lead opposite Kim Basinger in the sexually-charged, “9½ Weeks” and later with Lisa Bonet in the even more lurid, “Angel Heart.” Rourke abandoned a promising acting career to devote himself to boxing. Following that, he had extensive plastic surgery that rendered him with a virtually unrecognizable, horrifying visage. In this film, through the wonders of CGI, Rourke is significantly enlarged. Nearly six inches in height and more than fifty pounds in muscle mass have been added to his frame. Looking at his mangled facial features, it is difficult to discern whether his inhuman appearance results from his pugilistic past, disastrous plastic surgery, prosthetics, or special effects. Suffice it to say that he is one scary-looking dude.
The film then segues back to Kadie’s. Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a self-assured young gambler on a hot streak. He is much less physically imposing than the other male co-protagonists, but no less cocky. Using barmaid, Goldie (Jaime King), as his good luck charm, Johnny prevails at successive pulls of a one-armed bandit. He uses his winnings to stake him in a back-room poker game, organized by the corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). Johnny has a back story with the venal politician and an agenda beyond merely beating him at cards.
The film moves to the central story involving hard-luck, alcoholic private detective, Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin, a decided upgrade from his predecessor, Clive Owen). He is taking incriminating photos of an adulterous liaison between Joey (Ray Liotta), a prosperous businessman, and Sally (Juno Temple) a call girl, who indulges his fetish for bondage. When it becomes apparent that Joey is about to kill Sally, Dwight jumps through a skylight to her rescue. After subjecting Joey to a beat down, Dwight handcuffs him to the brass bed for housekeeping to pick up. The incident defines Dwight for the audience. He is immersed in a sordid world and engaged in sleazy activities. However, he lives by a code of honor.
It has been years since Dwight was ditched by his girlfriend, Ava (Eva Green). She left him to marry a wealthy man, Damien Lord (Marton Csonkas). It left Dwight broken-hearted, embittered, and full of resentment towards his former flame. Now, Ava shows up at Kadie’s, pleading with Dwight for help. She claims that her husband beats her mercilessly. Her assigned chauffeur, Manute (Allstate Insurance pitchman, Dennis Haysbert, replacing the late Michael Clarke Duncan), shows up to sternly advise her that it is time to leave. Will Dwight succumb to Ava’s entreaties and try to rescue her from the Lord mansion? How will he deal with the seemingly invincible Manute and his cadre of henchmen?
The final story, flashes of which surface intermittently throughout the film, involves Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), an exotic dancer at Kadie’s. Like Johnny, Nancy has a history with Senator Roark. Years before, Roark’s deformed, pedophiliac son had been on a kidnapping, raping and murdering spree. He had kidnapped 11-year old Nancy. During his last day before forced retirement from the police department, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis back in spectral form), interceded just in the nick of time. After Roark hounded Hartigan to death, Nancy became a booze-besotted, guilt-ridden stripper. Can she convince Marv to help her seek long-delayed revenge against Senator Roark?
Rodriguez has once again refused to accept a screenwriting credit. However, in addition to directing, he has assumed the role as his own cinematographer and editor. Rodriguez has also provided much of the score, which adroitly conveys the film’s intended dark tone.
Rodriguez has also succeeded in recruiting a top-notch cast to his project. It is fleshed out by the likes of Rosario Dawson, Stacy Keach, Christopher Lloyd, Jeremy Piven, Jamie Chung, and even Lady Gaga.
Admittedly, “Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” isn’t traditional film noir. However, it is a visually stylish, action-packed, visceral rush for fans of such fare. The result is deliciously sinful.
“Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”
*** R (for strong brutal stylized violence throughout, sexual content, nudity, and brief drug use) 102 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.