Friday, August 29, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

(R, Dimension Films, 102 mins., theatrical release date: August 22, 2014)

I saw the original Sin City theatrically, five times. I spent quintuple the matinee price to see this film over and over back in 2005 because I legitimately thought I was watching a bona fide cult classic and personal favorite movie. It was a gas each and every viewing, not simply a slavish recreation of the Frank Miller graphic novel series but a juicy, disreputable, turbo-charged dynamo of a film which made Mickey Rourke iconic again, quenched my then-insatiable thirst for Rosario Dawson, boasted several kick-ass performances from a bravura all-star cast (Elijah Wood, Brittany Murphy, Rutger Hauer, Clive Owen, Powers Boothe, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Madsen, etc,), and proved that Robert Rodriguez was invaluable in translating the material to the screen. Compare it to Miller's solo directorial work on The Spirit if you want to see a half-assed retread which needed the Tex-Mex maverick's touch.

Nine years later, the sequel comes out to an under-performing indifference both critically and commercially compared to the still-searing original. I will always love the first Sin City dearly, and I have to admit there are moments of beauty in the follow-up which justify the belated pacing of the sequel. It's certainly not a DTV hack job compared to, say, the not-so-promising preview of Hot Tub Time Machine 2 which opened the screening (disclosure: I never liked the first one all that much, John Cusack be damned). But I don't see myself going back for more with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. And it's embarrassing me to say that given how devout I was in regards to the original.

Something seems's not as cohesive here as it was the first time around. The original wove three disparate stories (four if you count the Josh Hartnett interludes, all of them isolated effectively on home video) into a solid collection of hyper-masculine noir, but the effect here kind of seems slapdash. The framework is basically the same, but there is a lack of real momentum. When one story stops for another, and resumes later only to squitter towards a bit of a hard-boiled but soft-headed finale, it's not engrossing, merely the worst definition of "episodic." Even the chronology had me wondering where events fit in with the original, especially considering Marv died in the electric chair for exacting revenge on the cardinal brother of Senator Roark.

Marv does return for the trio of new tales set in the indefatigably corrupt Basin City, but only as a glorified supporting character. Indeed, two of the stories reduce him to wise-cracking mercenary instead of the sardonic, sadistic, soulful persona Rourke embodied in "The Hard Goodbye." The titular "A Dame to Kill For," the lone holdover from Miller's classic Sin City tomes, has him coming to the rescue of temperamental P.I. Dwight McCarthy (a recast but raring-to-go Josh Brolin), who makes the near-fatal mistake of trusting his duplicitous, dangerously seductive ex Ava Ford (Eva Green). And "Nancy's Last Dance" picks up the story of Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), the petite barroom dancer who was twice kept safe from Senator Roark's pedophile son by hopelessly honest cop John Hartigan (Bruce Willis, here on a phantom payday), who then committed suicide to quell Roark's inevitable wrath. Marv becomes an ally to Nancy after her repressed thirst for vengeance drives her to alcohol and self-mutilation, but his function remains the same as a human wrecking ball to smash past faceless security squads.

Only in "The Long Bad Night" does Marv take his place in the shadows of Kadie's Club Pecos per usual, as it instead focuses on Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the over-his-head gambler who pays his own ultimate price for showing up Senator Roark at the poker table. Gordon-Levitt has proven himself more than just a pro, but a real MVP in modern cinema, his fluorescent swagger irresistibly waiting to be crippled by the equally reliable Powers Boothe, the only returning cast member whose presence Rodriguez & Miller expand upon with any palpable joy. But the weight of Johnny's vendetta against the venom-blooded Roark is undermined by so much studied cool and the distracted choice to break up the segment for the whole of "A Dame to Kill For." It worked much better in the original with Hartigan's humiliating odyssey.

And Eva Green, fresh off another Miller-related sequel (300: Rise of an Empire), lives up to that title with brazen, buck-naked aplomb. Like Gordon-Levitt's presence does in the preceding/succeeding story, Green takes a stock character and juices it up with enough of an element of surprise to her performance to make the even the gristle of the steak sizzle. Whereas Brolin is compelling, yet forced into reciting reams of hyperbolic, underwritten anti-hero angst, so much so that the chasm between the bullish Brolin and the rascally Clive Owen parts wider than when Moses split the sea. At least he develops a wild chemistry with Green, which is all but lost the moment Dwight ends up in Old Town with hooker Valkyrie flame Gail (Rosario Dawson, bless her fishnet lingerie).

I'm still feeling let down, somehow. Maybe respective troublemakers Rodriguez & Miller have drained a lot of the sick humor from the original and have gotten po-faced portentous in going for darker character arcs and themes. Jessica Alba was brighter in her brief scenes with Marv ("Who's the babe?") from the first film than she is anywhere in "Nancy's Last Dance." She doesn't totally embarrass herself playing a sneering, stitched-up fallen angel as I feared, but she still comes up lacking in feral conviction, especially in comparison to the vampy, campy likes of Green and Dawson. Hell, the stunt-casted likes of Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven and Stacy Keach (imagine a mozzarella-shorn Pizza the Hutt from Spaceballs) make just as much of an impression as Alba. On the one hand, kudos to the still self-parodying Christopher Lloyd for playing a heroin-shooting alley cat variation of Doc Brown, but I'm still trying to convince myself Machete Kills vet Lady GaGa was NOT an understudy for Marisa Tomei.

The dizzying pulp style is still there, provided that's all you got from the original. Everything still is lensed in that deep, dingy monochrome via green-screen with sparse colors that accentuate certain allures, like Julia Garner's curly blonde locks, Eva Green's coat of blue silk or the intimidating goon Manute's (Dennis Haysbert) golden eye. The compositions hew faithful to the chiaroscuro framing of Miller's panels, or at least the two stories which are proper adaptations (the other being the prologue involving Marv in a destructive, murderous rewrite of The Hangover), whereas the originals blend in with some surreal invention. The violence is as cartoonishly grisly as ever, with enough jutting geysers of bright white blood on tap to keep the MPAA from pitching a fit. Miller still prefers his men tortured and his women topless, although the latter is a tall order to fill. Everything adheres to the antiquated, reductive standards of the noir genre with as much of a vengeance as its cynical characters. And Marv is still downing prescription medicine like it's candy whilst reminding you through voiceover that he's "got a condition."

Jesus Christ, this IS like The Spirit, after all! This IS Robert Rodriguez without the quality control, again! "Yeesh!" I wanted so badly to admire Sin City: A Dame to Kill For on the same primitive, unapologetic level as before, but nine years of stalling, two interim tragedies (Michael Clarke Duncan and Brittany Murphy) and a string of mediocre to worse efforts associated with Rodriguez & Miller have lowered the bar with which this movie limbos beneath. Never mind the aged skinniness of its novelty, this is just turgid, clumsy and a joyless defilement of what was already pleasurably perverted. There is no charge to this film's metaphysical exploitation that is not fleeting or feeble. All you get is a tedious burlesque of its storied antecedents, a movie which becomes its own Yellow Bastard. It's sinful, it's tragic, but what it ruefully isn't is passionate.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


(R, United Artists, 110 minutes, theatrical release date: January 31, 1986)

If you come into the 1986 Rob Lowe vehicle Youngblood expecting another Slap Shot only to walk away disappointed that it instead chooses to emulate Rocky IV, well...join the club. I realize that I don't have too much blind nostalgia for the 1980s, which makes me a more objective chronicler of that decade's cinema, but it also means that I can't celebrate this movie the way it was meant to be, as a product of its particular time and place. Youngblood strikes me as an amalgam of every unfortunate trend in cinema around this time, from the entitled puerility of the teensploitation genre to the checkpoint-dotted trajectories of the underdog sports movie and finally the "might makes right" machismo of the action genre. 

This movie deserved a penalty box more than a projection booth.

Fresh off his Razzie-winning turn as the unctuous bar band bad boy Billy from Joel Schumacher's St. Elmo's Fire, a low-key Lowe plays the titular cipher, Dean Youngblood, who declares right smack dab at the beginning that he's bucking for an open slot on the Hamilton Mustangs, the same minor league Canadian hockey team his older brother Kelly (Jim Youngs) briefly played for. Ambitious as he may be to escape the dreary life of a farm hand, Lowe sounds more pissy than powerful in asserting his independence, which is not a good sign as to the tenor of his character under the writing/directing duties of Peter Markle.

Youngblood's only rival at the tryouts is the requisite unshaven brute named Racki (George Finn) who delights in smashing his competitors' faces into the ice. Consider him the Ogie Oglethorpe of the plot. Mustangs coach Murray Chadwick (Ed Lauter) decides he needs someone with actual skill at scoring goals instead of cracking skulls (inadvertent spoiler alert) and chooses Youngblood. Racki may not be impressed, but Chadwick's daughter Jessie (Cynthia Gibb) certainly is when she gets an eyeful of Youngblood's bare ass! Consider her the Ogle Ogiethorpe of the plot.

Mustangs star player Derek Sutton (Patrick Swayze) welcomes Youngblood to the fold by wearing a jock strap across his face like a surgical mask and shaving the rookie's testicles. To prove there are no hard feelings, Sutton gets Youngblood bombed on tequila shots to sabotage his stamina for the next morning's practice. It isn't until Youngblood scores his first competitive goal that Sutton decides to make friends with him, thus Swayze slips into his inimitable sage bro persona. Sutton has spent years gunning for a NHL contract, painfully aware that "you have to play by their rules," as he confides to Youngblood. The rookie learns this the hard way when the Mustangs face off against the Toronto Bay Bombers and who should be their newest recruit but the violent Racki!

It's at this point in which Youngblood the movie gets blitzed by a dubious morality which necessitates vengeance and brutality not at the whims of "them" but "us." Sutton is critically injured by Racki and decides to return home as a means of taking a stand, but his one-eyed brother and heretofore-disapproving daddy (Eric Nesterenko) goad him into toughening up and send him back for the championship game. The movie's ultimate victory isn't so much Youngblood nailing that game-winning penalty shot as much as it is his taking off his gloves and beating the crap out of Racki. And Peter Markle accepts this without any irony (Slap Shot), energy (The Karate Kid) or even the campy corniness of Rocky's populist plea to the U.S.S.R.

Youngblood is just so ham-fistedly macho that it's hard to engage with in any way whatsoever, which kills the already transparent melodrama. And the fact that Markle has had real life experience with the game, even going so far as to cast a genuine major league hockey hero in Toronto/Chicago veteran Nesterenko, makes this movie's hopeless adherence to formula all the more disappointing. There's not a whole lot of love in the staging of the competitions, which are ruined by indifferent editing and an over reliance on slow-motion at the expense of the game's inherent emphasis on speed and maneuvers. Markle doesn't even treat the other characters besides Youngblood and Sutton with any form of dignity, thus turning the Mustangs into an agonizingly interchangeable pee-wee collective. Those eager to spot a pre-stardom Keanu Reeves will notice he seems to disappear without explanation halfway through the film, but not before he attempts at least three lines with a laughably stilted Quebec accent.

And because the former Hot Dog...The Movie auteur can't help himself, the movie presents us with a pointless digression in the presence of Fionnula Flanagan as Miss McGill, owner of the Mustangs' resident boardinghouse. If you've ever seen a single teen sex comedy in your lifetime, you can guess what kind of quirk she exhibits even before Markle gives us a salacious shot of her cut-off clad posterior. Like all of the male-female interactions in this movie, the device of Ms. McGill proves more sleazy than the filmmakers seem willing to acknowledge and shows up a form of storytelling shorthand, one all too prevalent from this period, which robs the movie of any momentum or meaning just because it's a supposed idea of a lark. 

Markle tries to be everything to everyone in the Eighties sense, so there's also a bevy of mediocre MOR rock music (gratuitous Mickey Thomas, a technical foul if there ever was one), a sweaty sex scene between Youngblood and Jessie (gratuitous T&A, which is an improvement over secondhand Starship) plus an overly slick, MTV-ready sheen by virtue of the reliable Canadian DP and Cronenberg regular Mark Irwin. But Markle only piles onto the superficiality to the point where he robs his performers of their good qualities and drags them down to the script's lunk-headed level. The likes of Swayze, Cynthia Gibb, Ed Lauter, and even Rob Lowe, who can be a charismatic presence in the right settings, cannot sell this confused material even when they try, and they surely do try.

Youngblood is a movie which, to reference the Coasters' golden oldie which I'd rather hear 55 times in a row instead of sitting through this once, you can get out of your mind. In fact, the sooner, the better. This is a singularly graceless and ultimately groan-inducing affair that refuses to resolve itself in even the most remotely plausible manner, and wastes a lot of talent and premise without fail. Cynthia Gibb is an impossibly fetching personality, but even Short Circuit 2 knew better what to do with her, and Ed Lauter is a reliable crank even as his motivational speeches prove forgettable and his character never really becomes humanized. A human touch is what this movie so desperately needed in retrospect, since Youngblood is no more fun and imaginative than re-enacting a Stanley Cup play-off through table hockey.