It was during the Cannes Film Festival in the spring of 2005 when the world first discovered a cult classic: Sin City. Robert Rodriguez’s take on the renowned comic by Frank Miller was chosen to screen in competition at the famous French film festival. At that time, most critics commended the film for its audacious design and smart narrative composed of three parallel story lines. It was lauded as a brilliant twist on American film noir (see Søren’s essay on that here). Following a strong return at the box office ($74M gross following a $40M budget), directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez decided to continue the Sin City saga with a second and possible third movie.
Nine years later, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For finally arrived. Yet despite an extensive marketing campaign, it was a huge disappointment at the summer box office; the film only grossed $13.7 million in the U.S. and a total of $35 million worldwide, paling next to its estimated production budget of $65 million. But if you consider the positive reputation of the first movie, the impressive cast of its sequel and the fact that the author of the original comic was heavily involved in the creative process, why did A Dame to Kill For fail so dramatically?
The time between the two movies played an important role in the commercial failure of the 2014 sequel. In a world where everything moves fast and opinions change quickly, nine years is far too long to expect a sequel to resonate with a mass audience – especially as a follow-up to a film with such a concise ending. Hardcore fans will always want to see their favorite films turned into a series, but that demographic alone doesn’t guarantee a blockbuster.
Lag time is certainly a large factor in the fiscal shortcomings of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, but it’s not the only explanation. What about the critical response? That hasn’t been great, either. The film holds a 45% satisfaction rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 46% on Metacritic. It’s far from the mass consensus that benefited the first movie; Sin City is still in the Top 250 films ranked by IMDB users. And without those critical accolades, there wasn’t enough to convince a tired public that the sequel was worth waiting for.
Despite the lukewarm reviews, I decided to go to the theater to see the film for myself and form my own opinion. I have to say I agree with the critics’ generally dissatisfied feeling. Actually, it was a good thing that I re-watched the first Sin City just before; otherwise, I think I would have been totally confused.
At the beginning of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Marv (Mickey Rourke) is alive. This is startling – didn’t he die at the end of the first movie? Of course, diehard fans understand that Marv’s story in the second film takes place before the original film’s timeline. But the marketing campaign in no way alerted me that I was in for a prequel.
And to be fair, A Dame to Kill For isn’t entirely a preamble to Sin City. We also follow the story of Nancy (Jessica Alba) who works Marv to avenge John Hartigan’s (Bruce Willis) death, another character who died at the end of the first film. But we already have two plot lines running parallel to each other featuring overlapping characters – not a great way to re-introduce the audience into Miller’s complex world. And just as I was trying to figure out how Marv’s still kicking, the others stories featuring Ava Lord (Eva Green) and Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) suddenly became less interesting in comparison. How the hell are we supposed to keep track of all these threads?
It was too much for me. The script was too confusing. How can you expect people who saw the first film almost a decade ago to follow the prequel/sequel’s convoluted narrative structure? You risk losing your audience when you attempt to create several movies in one, and I was lost.
Parallel plot lines can work. The González Iñárritu’s Babel saw success using this tool in another genre, and the first Sin City remains a great example of how this kind of storytelling can work. Miller and Rodriguez fall flat this time, however. The gimmick in A Dame to Kill For is useless and nebulous.
Nevertheless, as the reviews suggest, A Dame to Kill For isn’t a totally catastrophic film. It’s a real pleasure to head back into the narrow streets of Sin City. The sharp visual style inspired by the comics is still stunning.
It’s hard not to mention Eva Green, as well, who is perhaps one of the greatest actresses of this era. I admire her charisma and the magnetic presence she has on camera. Unfortunately, she doesn’t always appear in the best movies, and this time her acting just wasn’t enough to save the mediocre narrative built around her.
So why was A Dame to Kill For such a flop? To put it simply, time was not on the directors’ side; they structured the movie as if it followed its predecessor just a few years later despite the almost 10 year gap. Still, the failure of this film managed to reinforce the cult status of the first Sin City as it showed the sequel to be a pale copy of its forebear. And once the ho-hum reviews started to pour in, it became clear nothing could turn this shadowy perception around.