Returning to Frank Miller’s nostalgically noirish graphic novels for inspiration after a span of nearly a decade, director Robert Rodriguez offers a sequel to their 2005 collaboration “Sin City” with its sense of visual style intact—indeed, enhanced—by 3D but exhibiting no appreciable advance otherwise. “A Dame to Kill For” is the same sort of pictorially striking but empty-headed homage to—or parody of—Jim Thompson, Fredric Brown, Cornell Woolrich and their like. Whether that will lure you into the theatre or send you running in the other direction is a matter of individual taste. For this viewer, once around the block was more than enough for Rodriguez’s vacuous explosion of comic-book flamboyance, extremely scantily-dressed females, ludicrously hardboiled dialogue and ultra-pulpish mayhem.
This time, Rodriguez and Miller have interwoven four plot threads. The first reintroduces brutish Marv (Mickey Rourke under heavy makeup that curiously doesn’t succeed in making him look much different), who in a violent prologue dispatches a quartet of thuggish college boys who are setting winos on fire before settling back onto his usual stool at Kadie’s Saloon. It’s home to a group of pole-dancing lovelies headed by Nancy (Jessica Alba), who’s watched over by the spirit of the late detective John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), the cop who died while saving her in the first film.
In another episode, the one that’s longest and gives the movie its subtitle, Marv will eventually team up with antihero PI Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin, replacing Clive Owen)—fresh from saving high-end call girl Sally (Juno Temple) from brutal businessman Joey (Ray Liotta)—in an effort to rescue his one-time lover, sultry Ava Lord (Eva Green), from her nasty millionaire husband Damian (Marton Csokas). The effort will bring the duo up against Damian’s chauffeur, a supposedly invincible fellow called Manute (Dennis Haysbert, standing in for the late Michael Clarke Duncan). But eventually Dwight will also enlist a bevy of beauteous, skimpily-attired helpers (among them Rosario Dawson, Jaime King and Jaime Chung) in his work. In the course of the serpentine narrative, Ava turns out to be the ultimate manipulator, taking advantage not just of McCarthy but of Mort (Christopher Meloni), a cop who becomes so obsessed with her that he kills his partner Bob (Jeremy Piven) for bad-mouthing her.
The third chapter brings back Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), the thoroughly corrupt politico who appeared in the preceding installment as the protective father of the appropriately named Yellow Bastard. Here Roark is presented as the mainstay of a high-stakes poker game in which a cocky newcomer named Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) uses a sweet stripper called Marcie (Julia Garner) as his good luck charm to beat the snarling villain. Upsetting Roark will have unhappy consequences for both Marcie and Johnny, who will have to consult a dissipated doctor named Kroenig (Christopher Lloyd) before returning to the table for another shot at taking Roark down. That doesn’t end well for him either.
The fourth and final segment returns to Nancy, who aims to take vengeance on Roark for the death of Hartigan. Presumably the goal was to tie up loose ends from the first picture and send viewers out on a seedily triumphant note, but by the time the confrontation ends, one is more likely to feel nothing more than relief that the ordeal of watching is over at last.
As the preceding paragraphs demonstrate, “A Dame to Kill For” is festooned with prominent performers, who presumably enjoy the scenery-chewing possibilities this sort of material provides (along with the chance to intone incredibly florid dialogue), but none of them are at their best. After all, they’re at the mercy of Rodriguez’s visual aesthetic, all gleaming black-and-white images interrupted by flashes of bright color, and the action that takes pulp to the highest (or is it lowest?) level. However much they emote—some, like Boothe and Lloyd, go for broke, while others like Brolin and Willis, are stuck in mostly stone-faced mode—they remain totally synthetic figures in a deliberately artificial landscape. And the images swing wildly from the purely voyeuristic (the shots of a nude Ava in her swimming pool) to the unbearably brutal (the vengeance Marv takes on those frat boys or the beatings that McCarthy and Johnny repeatedly endure, which aren’t much mitigated by the fact that the blood spurts out in white patches), without much in between. The picture is a relentless stream of sordidness of every conceivable sort, which can interest one for awhile as a result of the artistry of the images but quickly grows repetitive and boring.
Maybe those who have been longing to revisit “Sin City” since they first encountered what Rodriguez and Miller wrought in 2005—whether in a theatre or on a homebound system—will salivate at the thought of once again visiting the sleazy, nasty world they created. Most of us, however, will probably conclude that this second trip to the same noirish well has come up dry.