Sin City (Vol. 2): A Dame To Kill For by Frank Miller
Frank Miller’s SIN CITY series is famous for its hard-boiled crime noir stories, characters and black-and-white artwork. In the second volume, A Dame To Kill For, Miller gleefully tackles that most classic of noir tropes, the seductive and deadly femme fatale. Ava is her name, and when she beckons, men cannot resist. Our lead this time is Dwight McCarthy, a photographer who is trying to live a clean, modest life in that cesspool of vice, crime, and violence known as Sin City. But four years ago he was involved with Ava, a dame with a perfect body and hypnotic eyes who can make men do her bidding with ease. But she dumped him for a wealthy and powerful man named Damien Lord, breaking his heart. So when she suddenly calls him and begs to meet him, he knows he should hang up the phone. But he can’t resist the siren’s call, agreeing to meet at a seedy saloon (where Marv happens to doing his usual drinking and brawling). She tells him she needs him and begs to get back together, before a giant bruiser of a chaperone named Manute shows up to tell her it’s time to go back home. The hook has been placed, setting in motion a series of ever more violent confrontations, as Ava lays her web of seduction and manipulation on every man who falls in her crosshairs.
The story here is not complicated, so you know what to expect. Dwight is a sympathetic character, a guy who is trying to put his past behind him and control his demons. And of course it’s hard not to like the hapless lug Marv with his own code of justice and disregard for his own safety. So when they team up, it’s fun to see them get nasty with the badguys. But Ava is too stereotyped for my taste, just a completely devious and manipulative type that has men twirled around her fingers. She is constantly in a state of undress throughout the comic, with her voluptuous and naked body on display, made more dramatic with the black and white artwork and play of light and shadows. You can’t fault Frank Miller for admiring the idealized female form, but after dozens of panels of Ava it actually loses its impact, and it’s a fine line between admiration and objectification. The women in Sin City are basically all whores, strippers, bar hostesses, or the playthings of rich and powerful men. Ironically, Ava is able to control of these men by offering her body, but it’s a sad sort of power, fully dependent on men. She chafes at this state of affairs, but accepts it as inevitable. The only other version of strong women are the prostitutes of Old Town, who protect their own with their own brand of lethal justice. But they too are dependent on men for their livelihood, which is still selling their bodies. Miller has gotten plenty of flack for his portrayal of women in SIN CITY, and I have to agree. It’s fine to pay tribute to the genre conventions of noir, and focus on the violence and seedy criminal denizens, but he could do a lot more with the female characters than he has in this volume.
Movie Version (2014; directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller)
Strangely enough, I held off watching this film until I re-read A Dame to Kill For. So having just watched the film, I can say that the main story “A Dame to Kill For” featuring Dwight, Marv, and Ava is very faithfully portrayed. Scene by scene, line by line, the dramatic mono-chromatic atmosphere of the comic comes alive on the screen with some judicious splashes of red blood, green eyes, yellow skin, etc. The classic cars also gets some loving color paint jobs. It’s been nine years since the first film, so there are a number of new actors, most notably Josh Brolin replacing Clive Owens as Dwight, Dennis Haybert replacing Michael Clarke Duncan as Manute. Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, and Jessica Alba reprise their roles as John Hartigan, Marv, and Nancy Callahan. It’s a bit ironic that the main story takes place before the “Hard Goodbye” and “A Big Fat Kill” stories of the first film, but the actors are older. Of course Mickey Rourke has no problem since he is covered in heavy facial prosthetics and Jessica Alba still looks great, but Bruce Willis is looking pretty grizzled. The most important newcomer is Eva Green, who plays the ultimate temptress Ava. Knowing that the role requires that Ava be naked or nearly so in at least half the scenes, I’m sure that a number of actresses must have hesitated, but Eva Green has never shied away from that. She certainly attacks the role with intensity and confidence, but I had the same reservations of believability that any femme fatale could so easily manipulate men so completely. But then again, I’ve never been faced by the gorgeous Eva Green smoking a languid cigarette on the bed before me. I’m sure I could resist…
The movie features a short opening vignette called “Just Another Saturday Night” from Vol 6 (Booze, Broads, & Bullets) in which Marv pursues some badly-behaved college kids into Old Town. It seemed a bit superfluous, and I’m not sure the college kids deserved quite the punishment they got, compared to the usual hardened criminals of Sin City.
The most problematic parts of A Dame to Kill are the two new stories “The Long Bad Night (Part 1 & 2)” and “Nancy’s Last Dance”, which were written specially for the film by Frank Miller. The first story is about a young and brash gambler Johnny (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who decides try his luck with the powerful and ruthless Senator Roark (played by Powers Boothe) in the backroom of Kadie’s Bar. After cleaning out Roark, he waltzes out of the bar with a bag full of money and a girl on his arm. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that things will soon turn sour, so I have to question just how stupid Johnny is to think he can antagonize Roark without any backlash. In Part 2, Johnny seeks his revenge on Roark, getting himself in position to challenge him in another poker game. Despite having a special reason for playing with fire again, it’s still mystifying why such a clever gambler would have such a suicidal urge.
The second new story, “Nancy’s Last Dance”, takes place after “That Yellow Bastard” in the first film. Nancy is back to dancing at Kadie’s Bar, missing Hartigan and feeling betrayed by him. She turns to drinking and vows revenge on Roark. As everyone in Sin City seems to, she enlists the help of Marv, who is always happy to get involved in fighting and killing. Frankly, this segment just wasn’t that good and made me sad. I have no idea why it was tacked on, as they film could have ended on a better dramatic note with “A Dame to Kill For”. Basically, it seems like the producers wanted to have more scenes of Jessica Alba dancing in a cowboy outfit (understandable), Marv cracking more skulls, and Jessica Alba finally getting to do some shooting and ass-kicking of her own. But it could have been removed with no big loss. Even the fighting seemed a bit tired and predictable.