Sin City, population unknown but dropping every minute, is a gorgeous place, but you wouldn't want to live there. Even the shadows and broken glass are beautiful in this black-and-white world. Only the women — all gorgeous — give the streets a pop of color. That is, only the women and the blood, which splashes red across the screen in the opening car crash and never stops flowing until the film gives up and rolls the credits out of exhaustion.
Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For isn't the kind of guns-and-glory thriller that ends with the hero putting down his pistol and getting a high five. In fact, there are no heroes, only men of differing levels of egomania and rage: from Joseph Gordon-Levitt's card shark, who can't stop pressing his luck, to Josh Brolin's hair-trigger private investigator, who can't control his temper. Then there's Mickey Rourke's shovel-faced brute, Marv, a force of destruction, who kills for fun and occasionally his own hard-to-define moral code, like the five frat boys he murders in the beginning just to prove an ethical point. There's a villain, too: Powers Boothe's purring senator, who would have a man's throat slashed as impersonally as a cat kills a fly.
And I've got one piece of advice if you're a woman in Sin City: move. Your other choices are being victims, hookers, or betrayed wives, and the line between the three is as invisible as a silk stocking.
In Frank Miller's comics, your best career option is, er, being a popular stripper. But even the town's best dancer, Nancy (Jessica Alba), is miserable, channeling her grief after the death of her Sin City savior, Hartigan (Bruce Willis), into a stage show in which she gets drunk and flails like a sexy salmon and sometimes rouses herself to pull out a gun, point it at the senator and pretend she's brave enough to shoot. When she gets too erotic, her platonic protector Marv grumbles it's "like watching my sister do the nasty."
Alba — a lovely but rather listless actress — has been asked to shoulder Sin City's emotional arc. The role needs a performer with violence in her eyes. When Alba glares at the camera, you just want to give her a hug and say, "It's okay — we know you're trying your best." The miscasting isn't her fault. It's Rodriguez's, a symptom of Sin City's larger worldview that looks matter more than depth.
The counterargument, I suppose, is that nothing matters in Sin City. Life is cheap and death is anticlimactic. Rodriguez knows better than to ask us to believe in happy endings, but his grim endings lack soul — even his cynicism feels like a cop-out. Sure, cynicism is what has always fueled noir. But in the best noirs, occasionally the embittered detective would let the mask slip, and you'd see that tiny, wishful glint that maybe this time the world could be a better place. And then when that dream again gets crushed, the blow feels double-strength.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For never teases us with optimism. It's too modern for that, too sulkily self-aware. Why, then, should we watch? Instead of an emotional roller coaster, it's a mine shaft straight down to the bottom of existence that then asks us to enjoy watching the rats tear each other to pieces. There are people out there who will feel a sense of bleak relief that it expresses a worldview they share, but I don't want to meet those people, and I definitely don't want to sit next to them in the dark.
Still, the movie looks good, even when it wants to look bad. Rodriguez can make a blond pixie prostitute (Jaime King) so lustrous we'd pay whatever price she asked, and then hide Rourke underneath monstrous prosthetics while remembering to give his synthetic skin cavernous pores. And it's hard not to knowingly snicker at what passes for retro noir in 2014: boxy cordless phones. (Or that when people in a black-and-white movie watch an old black-and-white movie on cable, the TV screen turns blue.)
But Sin City's best special effect is Eva Green. When her femme fatale — homophonically named Ava — bursts into a bar to plead that ex-boyfriend Brolin take her away from her rich husband (Marton Csokas) and omnipresent bodyguard (Dennis Haysbert), her ripeness reduces him to two words: "Ava. Damn." Green is sexy, funny, dangerous and wild — everything the film needed to be — and whenever she's not on-screen, we feel her absence as though the sun has blinked off. She strips off more than Alba, yet she's never just eye candy — she's a full meal. In a movie that treats women like chew toys, Green is powerful, even when she plays weak. When she coos, "I guess I'm not a very strong person," to her latest rescuer, not only is she wielding femininity like a trap, but she also feels as if she's sending up the rest of the film.