by Nathan Sacks
Adaptation is a tricky thing. Even when the aspects of a book one so admires get translated faithfully to film, those same aspects can seem lacking. For instance, one of my favorite books is The Old Man and the Sea, which was the subject of a 1958 Spencer Tracy film deemed “the most literal, word-for-word rendition of a written story ever filmed.” Yet the film, perhaps because it is so faithful, still lacks the totalizing, punishing effect of the book. What does this prove? That the quality of a work of storytelling depends on more than just arc, sequence of events, dialogue. There is a secret alchemy involved, which is why some faithful versions of books score so high in the collective consciousness, while others are viewed as unnecessarily vestigial for the same reasons.
Directors: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez
Producers: Sergei Bespalov, Aaron Kaufman, Stephen L’Heureux, Marc C. Manuel, Alexander Rodnyansky, Robert Rodriguez
Writer: Frank Miller
Cinematographer: Robert Rodriguez
Editor: Robert Rodriguez
Music: Robert Rodriguez, Carl Thiel
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe
US Theatrical Release: August 22, 2014
US Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Successful adaptations need to add something extra to the original. What that is can be anything—new scenes, lines of dialogue, actions or plot moments that the original can only suggest. There is no point in adapting something that exactly recreates the original reading or viewing experience. Not everyone thinks this way. Some readers of Game of Thrones, for instance, seem incensed when elements of the books are changed for the TV show. One would think that readers of the book in particular would relish opportunities for the adaptation to provide unexpected moments or twists that excite and delight instead of slavishly repeating what they already know, but maybe not.
So it was with the original Sin City, which I enjoyed so much that I sought out the original Frank Miller comics upon which the movie was based. I soon discovered there was no point. Reading the books added nothing to my enjoyment of the film—it was 100% the same thing. Co-directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez had concocted the most faithful adaptation of a comic book yet, with sequences and images lifted straight from Miller’s pen, with no extra spin. The comic books themselves were literally storyboards for the action. This spearheaded a semi-trend of other faithful transliterations of comics, notably Zack Snyder’s works, 300 and Watchmen. Those films were less successful than Sin City for me, but was that because I had read the comics first, which I had not done with Sin City? What makes Sin City still an entertaining, tragic and funny film, despite being nothing more than a living comic book storyboard, when other films of its type fall short?
The original Sin City was an anachronism even back in 2005, and an unlikely success. Back then, the comic book movie was just beginning to flower and this was one of the films that showed audiences could support a hard-R rated, dark comic book film. Many things about the film were highly unorthodox: it was filmed entirely on greenscreen, and the entirety of Sin City’s back alleys and city streets were digital. It was co-directed by the original comic book artist Miller, which had never been heard of before, and opened the doors for many other figures in the comics field to make the switch to film. Even weirder, it also had a “guest sequence” directed by Quentin Tarantino. Sin City also provided a comeback role for Mickey Rourke, featured a non-linear overlapping story motif not too far from Pulp Fiction, and helped popularize a new neo-noir trend that continues to have effects on films like Gangster Squad.
As a comic, Miller’s Sin City is an exaggerated noir landscape that amplifies to cartoonish degrees the tropes of hard-boiled writing heroes Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, Donald Westlake, and many others. As a film, Sin City had fewer clear precedents, save maybe Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990), another film that used makeup effects so the actors would more resemble Chester Gould’s grotesque, gaudy pastel comic creations.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, which comes nine years after the original film, seems less special. The original had three great stories with classic Miller setups and twists, culminating with the haunting “That Yellow Bastard,” where Bruce Willis is a disgraced cop who loses everything to save the life of a young girl who grows up into Jessica Alba. The new stories are more of a mixed bag. The best one is completely new, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Johnny, a compulsive gambler whose narrative ends up being rueful and bitterly ironic. By far the worst is the follow-up to “That Yellow Bastard,” in which Jessica Alba’s character Nancy plots revenge on the characters who murdered Bruce Willis in the original film. That sequence is oddly rushed, and Alba’s sudden change to revenge-driven badass is not convincing. Somewhere in the middle is “A Dame to Kill For,” the lengthiest sequence—Josh Brolin’s Dwight deals with a femme fatale played by Eva Green. That sequence has some of the most brilliant and vivid visuals (many of Green’s naked body), but every plot point is absurdly predictable to anyone even passively familiar with noir. Hell, anyone who has even seen Double Indemnity can figure on where “A Dame to Kill For” is going, down to the very last double-cross.
Of course, Miller’s goal with Sin City was to bask in these noir clichés and exaggerate them to the point of grotesequerie, and surprisingly, it comes across as somewhat laudable that he doesn’t fight against or wink at these anachronisms, and mostly plays them straight. His world of Sin City is not kind to women, who are portrayed as strippers, hookers, and gold diggers. This attitude toward females is baked into the very foundation of noir from the earliest pulps, so I find these tropes acceptable in context. Chances are many other comic fans will not be so charitable to Miller, who has lost respect in recent years due to his post-9/11 conservatism and superhero propaganda book Holy Terror! (in which a Batman analog fights Al-Qaeda).
A Dame to Kill For is acceptable enough entertainment for a while, but it still lacks an edge, a reason to exist outside being a faithful adaptation of comics, which do big business these days. The individual sequences are integrated more than ever, but the stories repeat what we already know. What is particularly disappointing is that Marv (Mickey Rourke), the best part of the original film, only appears as a utility players in this one, usually to deliver violence in service of primary characters. That Rourke is left out of so much of the film is a major bummer. Then again, Powers Boothe as Senator Roark gets a greatly expanded role and likely more dialogue than anyone else in the film, despite not getting top billing like Bruce Willis (who appears only a few times in a movie as a ghost). Many of the roles in this film have been recast, which also cements this feeling that the actors are interchangeable stand-ins for Miller’s original storyboards. Also, the original Sin City did not need 3-D, and this one doesn’t either—it ends up adding no further dimension to Rodriguez and Miller’s often-arresting images.
The technology and business of moviemaking has changed so much in the nine years since Sin City. This one looks better, and the greenscreened city landscape has a harder, more pleasant digital sheen. But something is missing this time: a reason to exist, other than to continue stories that felt complete the last time around. This new Sin City adds nothing to the experience of reading the comics, and this time I know this without having to read them.