Stuck in 2-D

Sin City sequel looks great as it colors inside the lines

ISO “Leia/Jabba”

ISO “Leia/Jabba”

Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For
Starring Josh Brolin, Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Rosario Dawson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller. Cinemark 14 and Feather River Cinemas. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

There’s not a great deal to rave about in the cumbersomely titled Sin City sequel, but it’s definitely more interesting and engaging than you might guess from the dismal opening-week reception it’s been given, both at the box office and in the reviews.

In 2005, Sin City was both a commercial success and a kind of cult favorite. Nine years later, Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is off to a very slow start on ticket sales, and even the cult status seems in doubt. But both films, it seems to me, are pretty much equals in terms of movie entertainment, with Dame perhaps having a slight edge in a couple of key respects.

With both movies, there are several elements of strong appeal and interest—a large and striking array of strange and variously twisted characters, a sultry and freewheeling set of generic crime-in-the-city stories to tell, the savagely comical pastiche of film noir and genre heroes, the spectacular visuals (part cartoon, part live-action, mostly black and white, with occasional dashes of red, green, yellow, etc.).

Both flaunt the ingredients of dark drama, but the flamboyant presentation has a distinctly comical flavor (and not just because of the series’ comic book/graphic novel origins), and so the end result is closer to dark farce.

Most of that counts more in the film’s favor than not. But in the matter of pros and cons, those strong points get hefty challenges from some built-in weaknesses and limitations. Both films are in a sense more interested in costume and cosmetics than in character. Dame seems less insistently violent than its predecessor and, as perhaps signaled by its spoofy subtitle, there’s more respectful attention for the female characters, especially those played by Eva Green, Jessica Alba and Rosario Dawson.

Neither film, however, is able to get beyond the fetishistic eroticism of its basic premises. And neither brings much conviction to the emotional and spiritual darknesses in which they are trafficking.

Green’s performance as Ava Lord, the supreme femme fatale of this tale, is a particular standout. Alba’s Nancy Callahan, strip-club dancer and angel of life/death, and Dawson’s Gail, dominatrix and house mother, are captivatingly deadly as well. John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is a ghost of himself, literally. Senator Roark (an understated Powers Boothe) and hulking Marv (Mickey Rourke) continue as before.

Josh Brolin is a welcome presence as avenger Dwight McCarthy, but not so great that you don’t miss Clive Owen, who had the role in 2005. Whiz-kid gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) deserved to be a bigger part of the story. The wheeler-dealer power broker Wallenquist (Stacy Keach) is a grotesque human carbuncle, Humpty Dumpty in a business suit. Bodyguard/chauffeur Manute (Dennis Haysbert channeling Shaquille O’Neal) is also the man with the golden eye.