4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“This rotten town…” — Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

While Sin City was a huge hit in 2005, and a sequel was green-lit almost instantly, it took the better part of nine years for the sequel to be made. The intent was always to adapt the miniseries A Dame to Kill For, which was the first Sin City miniseries by Frank Miller that Dark Horse published following the feature’s successful run in Dark Horse Presents.

Delays occurred due in part to money not being forthcoming from the Weinstein Company, in part due to both Miller (The Spirit) and his co-director Robert Rodriguez (Grindhouse, the Machete films) having other projects.

For some reason, rather than adapt any of the other existing material, Rodriguez and Miller decided to craft two original stories to go along with the title story and the short “Just Another Saturday Night” (which was reprinted in Booze, Broads, & Bullets). In all four cases, themes were picked up from the stories in the 2005 film.

“…Saturday Night” also features Marv, in a story that takes place prior to “The Hard Goodbye.” The title story is a prequel to “The Big Fat Kill,” with Dwight McCarthy before his plastic surgery, working as a private detective.

The two original tales focus on Senator Roark. “The Long Bad Night” is about the senator’s illegitimate son, while “Nancy’s Last Dance” is a direct sequel to “That Yellow Bastard,” with Nancy Callahan wanting revenge on Roark for John Hartigan’s death.

The nine-year gap between productions required some adjustments, as both Michael Clarke Duncan and Brittany Murphy had died in the interim. Duncan’s Manute was re-cast with Dennis Haysbert, but Murphy’s Shellie was not re-cast. Allegedly, the character of Shellie was dropped out of respect for Murphy. (Yes, the white woman who died at the age of 32 of pneumonia thanks to complications from drug use isn’t re-cast out of respect while the black man who died of a heart attack gets re-cast without comment.) In addition, Devon Aoki was pregnant when the film went into production, and so couldn’t play the very physical role of Miho, and she was replaced by Jamie Chung. Jeremy Piven replaced Michael Madsen as Bob. And, since the title story takes place before Dwight’s plastic surgery, that role was re-cast with Josh Brolin (in his nine billionth role in this rewatch, following Jonah Hex, Men in Black 3, Deadpool 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers: Age of Ultron, with more to come). Clive Owen was supposed to appear as a post-surgery Dwight, but was unavailable, so they altered Brolin’s face and gave him Owen’s floppy hair.

Back from Sin City are Mickey Rourke as Marv, Bruce Willis as the ghost of John Hartigan, Jessica Alba as Nancy Callahan, Rosario Dawson as Gail, Powers Boothe as Senator Roark (in, sadly, his last film role before his death in 2017), Jaime King as Goldie and Wendy, and Jude Ciccolella as Liebowitz.

First appearing here are Eva Green as Ava, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (last seen in this rewatch in The Dark Knight Rises) as Johnny, Ray Liotta as Joey, Stacy Keach as Wallenquist, Christopher Lloyd as Kroenig, Christopher Meloni (last seen in this rewatch in Man of Steel) as Mort, Juno Temple as Sally, Marton Csokas (last seen in this rewatch in The Amazing Spider-Man 2) as Damien Lord, and Lady Gaga as Bertha.

The movie tanked like a big giant tanking thing, its box office only 60% of its production costs (and it only cost $65 million to make), with the critical response even worse.

 

“I beat you forever”

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Written by Frank Miller
Directed by Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez
Produced by Robert Rodriguez, Aaron Kaufman, Stephen L’Heureux, Sergei Bespalov, Alexander Rodnyansky, and Mark Manuel
Original release date: August 22, 2014

Screenshot: Miramax

Marv wakes up in midair from an explosion, having no idea what he’s doing there. He hasn’t been taking his medicine, and he doesn’t remember what happened. Slowly, but surely, he re-creates his Saturday night. It started, as usual, at Kadie’s, watching Nancy Callahan dance. He saw four frat boys trying to set a wino on fire, and Marv chases them off, and then chases them down, eventually winding up in The Projects, where he grew up. With help from his childhood friends (who are apparently proficient with bows and arrows), he kills the frat boys.

He also has no memory of where he got his fancy designer leather coat or his gloves.

A young man named Johnny comes to Sin City and has impossibly good luck at gambling—every time he plays the slots, he wins the jackpot. This impresses a woman in Kadie’s named Marcie, who becomes his arm candy pretty much instantly.

Johnny goes to the back room to join Senator Roark’s poker game, which also includes Lieutenant Liebowitz and two other guys. Johnny wins, humiliating the senator, and then takes Marcie for a night on the town.

Between dances, Nancy watches the poker game through a hole in the wall. More than once, she points what the customers probably think is a prop gun (but which is really John Hartigan’s service weapon) at Roark, but can’t bring herself to pull the trigger.

Johnny gambles more, and spends more on nice dinners and drinks for him and Marcie. His credit cards are all suddenly declined, so he has to pay cash, but he knows that Roark has targeted him. He sends Marcie to his hotel room and Roark then captures him, shoots him in the leg, and breaks the fingers of his right hand.

Roark also recognizes him as his illegitimate son, from a past liaison with a hooker. But as far as he’s concerned, Ethan was his only real son, and Hartigan killed him. Roark, however, doesn’t kill Johnny, instead leaving him broken and to remember what Roark did to him.

Dwight McCarthy is working as a private investigator. He was hired by a rich man’s wife to see if he was cheating on her. Joey is, in fact, cheating on his wife, with Sallie, a hooker from Old Town, and Dwight gets pictures—but he also sees that Joey is going to kill Sallie to keep her quiet about the affair. Dwight stops him, handcuffing him to the bed and driving Sallie back to Old Town.

Then Dwight gets a call from his old flame, Ava, whom he meets up with at Kadie’s. She’s now married to Damien Lord, a very rich man, who she says abuses her horribly. Manute, the Lords’ chauffeur/enforcer, takes her home. Dwight, against his better judgment, follows her, only to get the shit kicked out of him by Manute and his thugs. They take him home, unconscious. He wakes up near his apartment, his Mustang parked there. He’s surprised that Manute went to the trouble of returning his car—but he didn’t, Ava did, and she’s waiting for him, naked in his bed.

They make love, and Ava makes it clear to him that she fears for her life. Dwight agrees to kill Damien for her. He enlists Marv to help him out, and they attack the compound. Marv takes out Manute, removing his right eye, while Dwight kills Damien.

Then the other shoe drops—Damien is completely innocent. Ava set Dwight up to take the fall for murdering Damien, allowing her to get all her late husband’s wealth. She shoots Dwight several times, including once in the face, but Marv gets him away to Old Town, where Gail and Miho help him out.

Ava gives the story to the two detectives, Mort and Bob. Ava seduces the happily married Mort to the point where he’ll do anything for her. The truce between the cops and the prostitutes means that the police can’t touch Dwight as long as he stays in Old Town. Ava convinces Mort to break that truce to capture Dwight. Bob tries to talk him out of it, and Mort shoots him in the face. Realizing what he’s done, he kills himself also.

Frustrated by her failed seduction, Ava cozies up to Sin City’s major crimelord, Alarich Wallenquist, who sends for a man from Texas to go into Old Town and kill Dwight. However, Dwight has had plastic surgery to change his appearance (now looking a bit more like Clive Owen), and he comes in place of the Texas assassin. Manute, though, sees through the surgical disguise. However, Dwight—aided by Gail and especially by the incredibly lethal Miho—is able to defeat Manute’s security force. Ava herself realizes that Dwight is the only man for her (uh-huh) and shoots Manute herself, then falls into Dwight’s arms. After kissing her, Dwight shoots her dead.

Johnny gets stitched up by a heroin-addicted doctor who asks no questions, and then goes back to his hotel room only to find that Marcie has been killed by Roark. He escapes to a diner where a waitress takes pity on him and gives him a few bucks. He uses his phenomenal gambling luck to parlay that into a fortune and he returns to Roark’s poker table. At first he seems to be losing—folding good hands rather than winning the pot—until he draws four aces and then goes all-in. Roark has four kings, but Johnny beats him a second time. Now everyone will talk about how Roark’s illegitimate kid beat him twice. Roark shoots him in the head.

Nancy is getting drunker and drunker, haunted by Hartigan’s ghost, and trying to build up the nerve to kill Roark. Liebowitz reports to Roark that they finally found the girl Hartigan was protecting—she’s a dancer at the very club Roark plays poker in, and she’s been spending an hour a day at the gun range with Hartigan’s service revolver, and has become a very good shot. Roark, however, is unconcerned.

Finally, after being haunted not only by Hartigan’s shade, but also by Roark, Nancy works up the nerve to attack his compound. First she cuts her face, and then tells Marv that Roark was the one to cut her. She and Marv take out a biker gang that was going to rob Kadie’s, and then head to Roark’s with their bikes, their shotguns, and their crossbows. Marv takes out most of Roark’s guys, with Nancy taking out plenty of her own, before she confronts Roark.

Roark gets the better of her, shooting her twice, but then Roark sees Hartigan’s ghost in the mirror. This distracts him enough for Nancy to shoot him dead.

 

“Sex always made you stupid”

Screenshot: Miramax

When Sin City debuted in the early 1990s, I thought it was an impressive piece of noir, leaning into Frank Miller’s skills as an artist and a writer. It had style and verve and impressive visuals, and it was fun.

As I kept reading, though, the lustre wore off pretty quickly, as I realized I was reading the same story over and over again with the same characters over and over again. Miller has a stock set of characters and a stock set of dialogue styles, and there are only a few of them, and they recur constantly.

If the stories actually had some substance, this wouldn’t be so bad, but they really don’t. The men are all either macho dudes who are good at violence and protect women or mustache-twirling evil bastards, the women are almost all whores of some kind, whether Nancy’s exotic dancing, the actual prostitutes who have sex for a living, or self-serving whores like Ava. The plots are all about men protecting women, or being fooled by women, and end with tons of violence.

The best story in the bunch is the last one, as it’s Nancy who actually is the protagonist. Jessica Alba does a good job with Nancy’s pain and frustration, and her combination of love and anger for the late Hartigan. (And it’s amusing to see Bruce Willis play another ghost fifteen years after The Sixth Sense.) It’s a rare case of Miller letting a woman have the lead bad-ass role, and she’s the one who gets to kill Roark.

Powers Boothe had the best scene in Sin City, beautifully delivering the senator’s colloquy on power, so it’s not surprising that the sequel decided to make better use of him. The two original tales both have Roark as the antagonist, and Boothe is more than up to the task.

But the whole thing is just so repetitive and so tired. The “A Dame to Kill For” segment has the exact same story beats as “Nancy’s Last Dance,” down to both protagonists recruiting Marv to help them out. Mickey Rourke is having a grand old time as Marv, just as he was last time, but he’s pretty much a plot device in this one. (Hilariously, Johnny doesn’t recruit Marv and ends up dead. A lesson in that, maybe?) Marv, Dwight, Johnny, Hartigan, and Nancy are all, basically, the same person doing the same things. Eva Green is perfectly cast as Ava, and she’s very nice to look at, but it’s a particularly repugnant role. (And her seduction of Chris Meloni’s Mort is utterly unconvincing, especially frustrating because Green and Josh Brolin play the Ava-Dwight relationship so well. I bought Ava and Dwight’s tempestuous tête-á-tête, but I didn’t buy it with Ava and Mort in the least.) Jamie Chung is adequate as Miho, but not as good as Devon Aoki was. Rosario Dawson is again having a grand old time as Gail, but the role is less interesting this time. Just in general, the acting is as good as possible given the awful dialogue, which isn’t any better than it was last time, but there’s only so much even Green, Brolin, Dawson, Rourke, Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, et al can manage. (Worst is Stacy Keach, slathered in latex in order to look like Miller’s grotesque Wallenquist for no good reason.)

Ultimately, we saw this all before in 2005, and this does nothing to ameliorate the sameness. Just as, by the late 1990s, the Sin City comics had fallen into a rut, so too did the movies. Hell, they fell into that rut before the first movie ended, and there’s just nothing there.

 

Next week, we take a look at another story that owes as much to pulp tropes as superhero ones, the 2010 adaptation of the early 2000s Vertigo comic book The Losers.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is at Galaxy Con in Richmond, Virginia this weekend. He’ll be at Bard’s Tower, booth 204, alongside fellow scribes Jody Lynn Nye, Phil & Kaja Foglio, Dan Wells, Anthony Dobranski, and T. Allen Diaz. Come on by and say hi!

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