Beaten to a pulp: Why the hyper-stylised Sin City is in need of Raymond Chandler

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For imagines what 1940s cinema might have looked like with CGI and no Hays Code - but it falls short of that era’s crackling dialogue, smoky characters and emotional pull.

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Sin City: a Dame to Kill For (18)
dirs: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez

Nine years is a long time to elapse between a movie and its sequel but nothing much has changed on the mean streets of Sin City. Gentrification has made no inroads and you’d die of thirst before you stumbled upon a high street coffee shop. The new film, subtitled A Dame to Kill For, is another hybrid of modern technology and retro content. It is a collection of intersecting, noirish stories, using live action with a strong computer-animated component to produce shocking and implausible sights. A quadruple decapitation is performed with a single swish of a sword. A man dives through the windscreen of a speeding car. Bruce Willis is shown to have hair.

The first Sin City was shot in stark, metallic monochrome with isolated accents of colour in each frame. A slash of scarlet lipstick here, the orange glow from an explosion there: the Schindler’s List red-coat effect. That has carried over into the new film, with 3D an unnecessary addition, as it so often is. The strange thing is that the Sin City style has not been mimicked by other film-makers in the interim. That must be because the movies are innovative in ways that can’t easily be extended beyond their own niche. A similar fate has befallen 300, another stylistic high point of recent cinema, which was also adapted from the work of Frank Miller. The Sin City pictures, which began life in Miller’s graphic novels, evoke three pop-culture art forms that approached maturity in the period immediately after the Second World War: comic books, film noir and pulp writing. That cocktail is spiked with explicit violence, an ingredient deemed contraband in the earlier era.

In theory, this should create a trashy equivalent of what Todd Haynes did with Far from Heaven in 2002, a Sirkian melodrama in all but its 21st-century candour. In a similar vein, Sin City: a Dame to Kill For imagines what the cinema of the 1940s might have looked like if there had been CGI and no Hays Code.

When the snowplough-faced Marv (Mickey Rourke) scoops out an enemy’s eye and wears the prize like a ring on his finger, the horror doesn’t have to be kept off-screen. When the private detective Dwight (Josh Brolin) photographs an illicit tryst, the film isn’t restricted to merely insinuating what he sees. The self-harming of the stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba), who slices her own face with shards of glass in a convoluted act of revenge, can be shown in wince-making detail. And when the femme fatale Ava Lord (Eva Green) slinks around in her pool, there is no call for carefully positioned props to spare her blushes. But for all its apparent explicitness, the film is laughably prim about male nudity. Brolin always seems to know just where to stand so that the shadows protect his modesty but he has kept this information from his female co-stars.

The movie is a more joyless affair than all this suggests. Had you never seen a film noir, nor read any Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane, you would not guess from watching this picture that the genre was known for whiskey-dry wit. Miller and his co-director, Robert Rodriguez, can handle the nihilism but the dialogue is rarely up to snuff: “A city’s like a woman or a casino. Someone’s gotta win.” “Death is just like life. There’s nothing you can do.” These lines don’t appear to be pastiche or homage, let alone the work of someone who has ever seen The Big Sleep.

It would be nice if viewers demanded from these films the sort of knowing spin on familiar material that the Coen brothers attempted in their Dashiell Hammett-inspired thriller Miller’s Crossing, but evidence suggests otherwise. While it’s always unwise to review the audience, it would be dishonest to ignore the rambunctious laughter that greeted much of the violence. The hyper-stylised look allows brutal acts to be shown in full because they bear no relation to reality. But nor does the movie engage with emotion or meaning: its entire purpose is to pursue the aesthetic of excess. In the monochrome, splashes of blood are rendered white, like innocuous waves of milk. Slashes of light filtered through venetian blinds make much of the film look like mating season in a zebra enclosure.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate