By Josh Rottenberg
Los Angeles Times
When director Robert Rodriguez and legendary comic-book author Frank Miller released their movie “Sin City” in 2005, they had few expectations they’d ever make the sequel. In fact, they weren’t sure audiences would turn up for the first film at all.
A panel-for-panel re-creation of stories from Miller’s popular graphic-novel series, “Sin City” was unlike any comic-book movie anyone had seen. This wasn’t another rousing story of a superhero saving the planet. It was something darker and stranger: a hyper-stylized, ultra-violent noir thriller set in a corrupt urban nether world of hard-edged men and under-clothed women, with no cape, cowl or stitch of spandex to be seen.
“I thought people just might not get it,” said Rodriguez, who co-directed the film with Miller, perhaps best known for his 1986 Batman comic-book miniseries “The Dark Knight Returns.” “I thought maybe it wouldn’t do any business but people would discover it later and go, ‘Wow.’”
As it happened, plenty of people got “Sin City.” Critics praised the film’s starkly beautiful digital rendering of Miller’s illustrations and the film earned more than $158 million worldwide. Rodriguez and Miller are finally bringing the rough and sleazy world of Basin City back onto the big screen with a new 3-D “Sin City” film, subtitled “A Dame to Kill For.”
Like the original “Sin City,” the new movie is composed of a series of interlocking stories steeped in classic noir tropes of betrayal, sex and revenge. Jumping backward and forward in time from the events of the first film, “Dame” is less a traditional sequel than an expansion of the “Sin City” universe. “You can watch the movies in any order and it should work,” Rodriguez said.
Some familiar characters from “Sin City” return in the new film, including Jessica Alba’s exotic dancer Nancy Callahan and Mickey Rourke’s hulking antihero Marv (who died in the first film), while others are new, including a gambler played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a femme fatale portrayed by Eva Green.
“Each of the characters have very sordid things in their past, and some of them are still doing very bad things,” Miller explained. “But they’re each faced with a moral dilemma, usually involving a woman, and they are defined by that as either a hero or a villain.”
Though the new “Sin City” may be a companion piece to the first, the landscape around the franchise has changed considerably.
Whereas comic-book movies were in a relatively weak state when the first “Sin City” opened, with films like “The Punisher” and “Catwoman” having bombed and Christopher Nolan’s genre-redefining “Batman Begins” still on the horizon, audiences have since been bombarded with one darkly hued comics-based blockbuster after another.
Meanwhile, the CGI-driven approach that “Sin City” helped pioneer — inserting actors into digitally fabricated environments — is no longer revolutionary. As the technology has improved, other filmmakers have taken that method and run with it, most notably Zack Snyder with “300,” which also was adapted from Miller’s work, and James Cameron with “Avatar.”
Surprised by the success of “Sin City,” Rodriguez and Miller began kicking around ideas for a sequel soon after the film opened. But the process became bogged down when the movie’s backers, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, left Miramax Films and went on to found the Weinstein Co.
“The Weinsteins told us, ‘We’re not ready — go make a couple more movies and then come back,’” Rodriguez said. “Then we got distracted with other stuff. It was just a matter of finding the right time for everything to jell. We couldn’t have gotten this cast any other time.”
Indeed, an impressive array of actors lined up for the chance to play in the world of “Sin City,” including Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni and Josh Brolin, who takes over the role of private eye Dwight McCarthy from Clive Owen, who played him in the first film.
“Robert has been a friend for 20 years, and to have the originator of these amazing drawings and someone as emotionally and spiritually honest as Frank is — it’s a coup,” Brolin said. “Getting these two masters together in one movie is a treat.”
Seated next to each other in a suite at a Beverly Hills hotel, Rodriguez and Miller come across as an unlikely duo. Rodriguez, 46, whose other films include “Desperado” and the “Spy Kids” movies, is upbeat and talkative, while Miller, 57, is taciturn and laconic, his face frozen in a seemingly permanent scowl.
On the set, Rodriguez runs the cameras, but every shot and acting choice is subject to Miller’s approval. “Robert and Frank couldn’t be more different, but I feel like they bring out the best in each other,” Alba said. “Frank is so locked into his vision, it forces Robert to be even more creative within those boundaries.”
Despite the powerful influence his iconoclastic work has exerted in Hollywood, Miller had long been wary of the film business, having felt burned by the experience of writing two misbegotten “RoboCop” sequels in the 1990s.
“Being a screenwriter means your job is to create as pretty a fire hydrant as you can while they line up the dogs,” Miller said. “But Robert won me over.”
Like its predecessor, “Dame” is politically incorrect in the extreme and milks its R rating for all its worth. Nearly every male character is capable of savage brutality while nearly every female character is a prostitute, stripper or some sort of black widow. But Rodriguez argues the film should be taken on its own terms as a kind of gonzo hard-boiled genre exercise and not seen as “a commentary on society.”
“It exists in its own world and it’s all very stylized,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve gotten so many comments from people who say, ‘I don’t like violent movies but I like this movie.’”
Miller has caught flak for his political views. In 2011, he dubbed the Occupy movement “nothing but a pack of louts, thieves and rapists.” But he defies even his harshest critics to try to divine the deeper messages in the “Sin City” films.
“They can try all they want but they’ll just get a headache,” Miller said with a growl. “Where my ideas come from — they don’t want to go there. These are just yarns I spin.”
Miller has more “Sin City” yarns he’d like to spin, and if “Dame” clicks with audiences, he and Rodriguez plan to make a third film and possibly a TV spinoff.
“It’s a cartoonist’s trick of the trade,” Miller said. “You come up with stories that involve things that you love to draw. It just so happens that I love to draw vintage cars, beautiful women and tough guys in trench coats.”