First there's the nihilism of Sin City itself. A place where wounded men have to remind themselves to "never let the monster out," and a woman can "makes slaves of men," and even "good men" are turned on by a woman's tale of rape (which she invented, of course, because this is Sin City, where you can't trust a dame). A place where men are nothing beyond the ways they can use their rage, and women are nothing beyond the ways they can use their bodies.
The original Sin City's nihilism pales in comparison to that of its sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For — a movie consisting of little more than vignettes on vengeance and cruel parades of sociopathic power performed as gleefully ultraviolent shadow plays. A movie where disjointed parts never connect up into a cohesive whole and instead merely bounce around in a random nasty game of pinball. Is it paradoxical to suggest that even nihilistic stories need a reason to be told?
It's been almost 10 years since the magnificently brutal Sin City, and that's part of why this unnecessary sequel feels so empty and exhausting (and not in a good way). Back then, the oozing corruption and despairing hopelessness of Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's CGI-noir portrait of Basin Sin, the hellish world of Miller's graphic novels, felt excitingly pertinent: We'd been living in that world since at least 9/11, and maybe since the botched U.S. presidential election of 2000.
But now it's another decade on, and the real world has gotten even more unendurably angry, reactionary and mean-spirited in the interim. I don't need my movies to be all rainbows and fairy dust, but Dame is monstrous and merciless merely for the sake of merciless monstrosity. Even the vigilante justice it thinks its characters are dishing out — justice that is, I suppose, meant to make us get some pleasure out of the savagery we're witnessing — is cold and vacant.
Dame is all ugly posturing. Mal mots of fatalistic cynicism get no justification in the plot, as with Josh Brolin's Dwight, who is the one worrying about letting his monster out, and yet we never know what his monster is all about. Stories get set up and then go nowhere, like how hulking Marv (Mickey Rourke, buried under facial prosthetics) starts out unable to remember his own name or how he ended up with a bullet in him, and we never discover what the deal with the amnesia is. Potentially intriguing characters appear and disappear, having done precisely nothing. (Who's the warty, Jabba the Hutt-like crime lord who is incited to go on a rampage and then never shows up again?)
For extra bonus vacuity and confusion, the various plot threads here are not happening simultaneously: Some are sequels to events in Sin City, and others are prequels. I'd never have guessed that not only is Josh Brolin supposed to be the same character Clive Owen played in the first film, but that the Brolin version is also an earlier, younger version. Meanwhile, the storyline — featuring Powers Boothe's vicious politician, Jessica Alba's haunted stripper, and Bruce Willis' cop — clearly builds upon events from the first film. But even here, there's a lack of context or even the briefest of catch-up for those who may not have seen the first film in a while.
It gets so that even the unique visual style of the film seems little more than a gimmick. The black-and-white comic-book atmosphere, created as CGI animation for human actors to wander around in, is splashed with vivid color, mostly quite urgent: Flames and blood and lipstick and police sirens get highlighted. It often feels more like random underscoring than anything done with a purpose. It feels like Dame is playing with filmmaking toys it doesn't really understand; both Rodriguez and Miller are credited as directors, though the lack of discipline makes me suspect that what we get here is more Miller's work than Rodriguez's.
On the plus side — pretty much the only plus side — Sin City's sequel does feature both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Eva Green, two of the most bewitchingly magnetic actors working onscreen today. They're never together, alas: That might be too combustible even for Basin City. It's kind of sad, though, to see Gordon-Levitt's thread go so desperately nowhere, and Green's into such toxically clichéd misogyny. What a shame that crashing and burning for no good reason is a tradition in this town.