(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) It’s been nine years since the original Sin City, and that’s frankly too long in-between installments. I’m older, wiser and less likely to tolerate the kind of juvenile attitude in which overdone noir can indulge. It really doesn’t help that A Dame to Kill For seems delighted in showcasing brutes and corrupting whatever innocence had escaped the first film intact: Despite toned-down violence (well, ignoring the mid-movie thirty-second marathon of decapitations accompanied by grotesque audible sploshes), it feels like an even more pointless film than the original. It’s not all bad, especially if you can get yourself in a mood receptive to noir style and overdone dialogue: the special effects are well done (albeit inconsistently used), the quasi-parodic script is good for a few laughs and anyone wanting a little bit more of that first film’s style is likely to enjoy it. Director Robert Rodriguez may be repeating himself (it’s about time he directs a film that’s not part of a series), but he’s doing so stylishly. Mickey Rourke seems to have fun playing the brute once again, while Joseph Gordon-Lewitt and Eva Green (in a typical performance, as seductive as she seems insane) are welcome addition to the cast. Plenty of smaller roles are given to big-name actors, leading to a sustained game of spot-the-celebrity. Still, what curdles A Dame to Kill For is the ugly script, which not only has pacing issues but (unlike the original) forgoes the protection of innocence in favor of revenge, revenge and some more revenge: Jessica Alba’s character is corrupted to the point of destruction, more than one sympathetic characters are killed to set up the never-ending avenging and the effect is far more nihilistic than healthy, even for a noir film. (And that’s not even mentioning the troubling glorification of Rourke’s character as an invulnerable killer.) For all of the polish of the film’s style, it doesn’t work if its ideals and plot points leave a sour taste. It’s not a good sign that of the film’s interlocked stories, the worst two are the ones especially written for the sequel. I would still watch A Dame to Kill For again (someday, not any time soon) just to enjoy the visuals and the atmosphere, but I would be wary of recommending it to anyone else, and I sure wish the script had been more upbeat and less self-satisfied by its own pointlessness.
(Cable TV, September 2012) The most dependable thing about director Tarsem Singh’s work is the astonishing visual polish of his work: From The Cell to The Fall to Immortals to Mirror, Mirror, the least one can say about his work is that it’s pretty to look at. In terms of story, though, he doesn’t always pick the best scripts: His own writing on The Fall was intriguing, but his other films are disappointing to some degree. Immortals is no exception to the rule: While it features a number of sequences that are pretty enough to work as classical paintings, its story veers between confusion, dullness and trite clichés. Based on Greek mythology, Immortals is partly an excuse to produce a turbo-charged fantasy action film using top-notch special effects, and partly an excuse to play in the rarefied sphere of intensely operatic sword-and-sandal drama. It works, but not completely: While the visuals are one-wow-a-minute, the story takes a long time to get going, and even then merely works in fragments. Henry Cavill doesn’t have anything to regret in his performance as Theseus, while Freida Pinto perfectly plays the part of a reluctant oracle and Mickey Rourke brings some energy in the picture as the villainous King Hyperion. Still, this isn’t an actor’s film: it’s really a directorial showpiece, and Immortals has a lot of visually memorable set-pieces. The atmosphere may feel a bit claustrophobic (at time, it seems as if half the outdoors scenes are set on a cliff overlooking the sea), but the sequences are polished to such a degree that the entire film feels photo-shopped. (Immortals may feature some of the goriest slow-motion deaths in recent fantasy, but it’s so pretty that the only response is an astonished “oooh”.) Too bad the script hasn’t been re-worked to such degree: we’re left with a dull beginning, a muddled middle and a straightforward ending. A blend of 300 aesthetics with Clash of the Titans mythology, Immortals works best as a plot-less eye candy. Maybe, some day, Tarsem will manage to combine his superlative visuals with a good script.
(On DVD, August 2010) It’s said that films should be judged on the basis of their ambitions, and the least one can say about writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables is that it really wants to be a gift to 1980s action movie fans. The ensemble cast is among the most extraordinary ever assembled for an action film, in between Stallone, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li and others, with great cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unfortunately, the cast (Statham in particular) is about the only thing going for this film, which is so successful in recreating the eighties that it has forgotten that most action films of the era were deathly dull. Reviving Regan-administration Latin-American politics, the film is mired in a dull banana-republic setting where only Americans can kill the right people to restore peace and deniable capitalistic hegemony. But even worse is Stallone’s action direction, which cuts away every half-second in an effort to hide that the actions scenes don’t have a lot of interest. The explosions are huge, but the rest is just confused: in-between the excessive self-satisfied machismo of the film, it’s not hard to grow resentful at the stunning waste of opportunities that is The Expendables. A perfect example is a dock strafing sequence that could have been great had it actually meant something: instead, it just feels like the gratuitous hissy fit of a pair of psychopaths. But the nadir of the film has to be found in its script, especially whenever it tackles perfunctory romance: Sixty-something Stallone may helm the film, but it’s no excuse to slobber over a girlfriend half his age. Another dramatic monologue delivered by Rourke stops the film dead in its tracks and sticks out as the endless scene that doesn’t belong. Too bad that the script doesn’t know what to do with what it has: despite the obvious nods and little gifts to macho cinema, The Expendables quickly indulges in the limits of the form. Guys; don’t argue with your girlfriend if she wants both of you to see something else.