2005's "Sin City
" is 99.5% style, .5% substance, but it is easy to understand why it has its passionate fans. Directors Robert Rodriguez (2013's "Machete Kills
") and Frank Miller (2008's "The Spirit
"), adapting from Miller's graphic novel, brought life to a foreboding place never before glimpsed on film, the greenscreen surroundings of its live-action actors actualized with stark black-and-white animation and bursts of dazzling color. With the kind of dialogue that could only be heard in the land of film noir
and its cast members playing things deadly straight in the most ridiculous of circumstances (think Lt. Frank Drebin, Police Squad), the picture was a hard-boiled pulp comic in feature form. If there is even half a percent of substance in belated second installment "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," it must be well-hidden. This distaff continuationa combined sequel and prequelis spotty and slipshod, an unsteady, mostly vacuous excursion that not only shines a light on how much better "Sin City
" did it, but virtually erases from memory with each passing scene.
Like the first film, the various plot strands are told as extended, sporadically interwoven vignettes. In one, Marv (Mickey Rourke) wakes up injured on a curvy cliffside road outside rotten metropolis Basin City and tries to piece together the events that led him to his present situation. Meanwhile, gambling man Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) arrives in town with something to prove, challenging the powerful Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) at a game of poker that could cost him his life. At the seedy club that Roark rules with his almighty fist, hardened stripper Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) fantasizes about seeking her revenge on the senator as payback for the rotten life she's been forced to lead. Guided by hallucinations of dead lover/protector John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), Nancy teams with Marv to end Roark's reign once and for all. And, in a tale set before "Sin City
," Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) is manipulated by sultry femme fatale Ava Lord (Eva Green) into doing away with billionaire husband Damien (Marton Csokas) and bodyguard Manute (Dennis Haysbert), only to discover too late her nefarious true intentions.
"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" features a star-filled company eclipsing mediocre material. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (2013's "Don Jon
"), as the hurt and neglected Johnny, and Jessica Alba (2011's "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World
"), as the bitter, world-weary Nancy, come closest to finding detectable pathos in their roles. Both have full arcs, with Alba scarcely before embodying someone with such raw ferocity. The young lady she was in the predecessor is gone, beaten down by an unfair, exploitative existence she no longer can stand. Not surprisingly, she still manages to look hot even after taking a shard of glass to her own face. Also making an impression as she is reliably apt to do, Eva Green (2014's "300: Rise of an Empire
") deviously scorches up her segment with emerald eyes and ruby lips tearing through the largely chiaroscuro frames. Her part is that of a purely archetypal villainess, but Green always tackles these strong, savage ladies with her own inspired spin. Seeing his Senator Roark's screen time increased, Powers Boothe (2010's "MacGruber
") is easy to despise, and easier to be captivated by.
As for the rest of the ensemble, the actors are a collection of new faces to the series and returnees who have far less to do. Mickey Rourke (2011's "Immortals
") cuts an always imposing figure as valiant, deadly big lug Marv, but he is a more sidelined figure here, at the service of other characters' stories rather than the driving force of his own. Taking over for an absent Clive Owen, Josh Brolin (2013's "Oldboy
") is terribly miscast as Dwight. He is fine in the part, but doesn't at all capture the Dwight which Owen so dynamically originated. As butt-kicking lover Gail, Rosario Dawson (2013's "Trance
") is mostly a peripheral player here, while Bruce Willis (2013's "A Good Day to Die Hard
") appears in a glorified cameo as John Hartigan. Other excellent talent, from Christopher Meloni (2013's "Man of Steel
") and Jeremy Piven (2011's "I Melt with You
") as police investigators Mort and Bob, to Ray Liotta (2013's "The Place Beyond the Pines
") and Juno Temple (2014's "Maleficent
") as dangerous cheating husband Joey and his streetwalking girlfriend Sally, to Jamie Chung (2012's "Premium Rush
") and Jaime King (2012's "Mother's Day
") as Miho and twins Goldie/Wendie, to a natural-as-can-be Lady Gaga as compassionate waitress Bertha, are woefully underutilized.
In the festooned world which Basin City resides, people can get thrown out speeding cars, tossed from upstairs windows, have their eyes ripped out, and get shot full of lead and still live to see another daythat is, if the sun ever came up. This is all in the name of a purposefully exaggerated concept that brings its illustrated origins to filmic realization. That doesn't mean, however, that "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" is successful. Any shot could arguably be framed and hung on a wall, but put all together there is a lack of a beating heart to carry the viewer through the movie's heightened histrionics. With stale criss-crossing narratives that prove anemic no matter if they are separated or together, the picture covers familiar territory in inferior ways. Lumbering to an ending that feels as if it is missing a closing beat, the proceedings finally collapse in a gust of so-whatness. The nine-year wait was far from worth it.