Style is everything in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, whether it's the clothes women barely wear or their men's silhouetted beatdowns. The town is like a newspaper: black and white and red all over, except this blood is white. Save the reds for what's urgent: a police siren or a looker hooker's lips.
Substance is another matter. For all of its lurid action and hardboiled soliloquies, the dangers that screenwriter Frank Miller assembled from his graphic novels are thin as the paper they were printed upon. There is a brutal, misogynist sameness to the noir that Miller and co-director Robert Rodriguez can't episodically shuffle away.
Based on three of Miller's nonchronological comic books, this is both a sequel and prequel to 2005's Sin City. First film fatality Marv is back as this movie's anchor, with Mickey Rourke's zest shining through heavy facial prosthetics. In the opening sequence, Marv awakens from a car crash with amnesia, killing a few frat boys to jog his memory, establishing the thrilling visual style and Miller's nihilistic verbiage.
The action is centered on Kadie's strip joint, where Marv has a protective crush on Nancy (Jessica Alba), who has a grudge against corrupt senator Roark (Powers Boothe), who facilitated the murder of her first-film defender Hartigan (Bruce Willis, ghostly). That'll be settled last, and least satisfying, mostly due to Alba's unconvincing grit. Her performance is all bump, grind and groan.
Meanwhile, a cardsharp named Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) invades Roark's poker game at Kadie's, bragging he'll win and he does, too much for Roark's pride. Nasty things happen, and the tough guy byplay between Gordon-Levitt and Boothe (the movie's ace, along with Roarke) is electrifying. The film's palette works best here, saturated to pulp with playful reversals of color hues on playing cards.
Then there's the continuation of demonized Dwight (Josh Brolin, replacing Clive Owen), and his obsession with Ava (Eva Green), who married rich. It's a '40s film noir setup with Green's frequent nudity as the pinnacle of this film's objectification of women. Lauren Bacall would be appalled.
Despite its unsavory aspects, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is always a pleasure to observe, so artfully artificial with its green-screened backdrops and CGI props. Miller's lines can occasionally curl a smile ("I wake up in mid-air; the pavement rushes up to give me a big, sloppy kiss"), while Rodriguez nimbly illustrates it. Style is no problem. A reason for this movie besides it is a mystery.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.