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Film Review: 'Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" dives back into a noir abyss

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After being clonked over the head in 1944's "Murder, My Sweet," Raymond Chandler's immortal private eye Philip Marlowe wryly narrated the experience of being knocked out: "A black pool opened up at my feet. I jumped in."

In "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," a belated, 3-D sequel to 2005's "Sin City," cultishly-adored graphic novelist Frank Miller and genre-exploiting director Robert Rodriguez have again jumped right into the same dark abyss Dick Powell's Marlowe fell into, into the same noir sea — or, at least, some hyper-stylized version of it. This is hardboiled on heroin.

Both "Sin City" movies are double layers of esthetic idolatry: Miller, famed for his "Dark Knight" reimagining of Batman, worships at the pulp altar of Chandler and Mickey Spillane, while Rodriguez is slavishly devoted to turning Miller's two-dimensional drawings into cinematic flesh. (Miller's name precedes the film's title and he shares directing credit with Rodriguez.) They each approach their tasks with gusto that can only be admired, even if the results can't.

Like its predecessor, "A Dame to Kill For" was made with an almost entirely digital palate, placing actors — Mickey Rourke, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Eva Green — on a starkly black-and-white canvas in a fictional (but very Los Angeles-like) permanent-midnight metropolis of rampant crime, extreme brutality and skin-baring luridness. It's described with tough-guy poetry like: "the kind of place your father doesn't want to talk about."

Stitched together are a grotesque handful of overlapping revenge tales carried out by thin stereotypes: a stripper (Alba) bent on killing a corrupt politician (the magnetic, teeth-clenching Powers Boothe); a pained loner (Brolin) caught in the spell of a Medusa-like femme fatale (Green, her green eyes aflame); a gambler (Gordon-Levitt) aiming to, at the poker table, humble the father (again Boothe's senator) who abandoned him. Rourke, with an exaggerated rock of a face and a trench coat for a cape, is a kind of overseer and always-game enforcer.

The best thing about the shadowy digital landscape is that it brings the focus even more sharply on the actors' faces. As a murderous adulterer, Ray Liotta's eyes are even buggier, which didn't seem possible.

It's a nihilistic nightmare of a world. Glimmers of hope or love were long ago extinguished, and to say the place gets tiresome would be an understatement. Miller proudly wallows in the moral emptiness, which might actually haunt if it had anything about life in it that wasn't cribbed from pulp clich�s.

There are gestures to empowered women (Alba gets a gun in this one, and Rosario Dawson again reigns over the "Old Town" all-female gang) but they ring hollow amid the otherwise overbearingly juvenile presentation of women as scantily clad objects of fetish.

As an exercise in stylistic verisimilitude, the two (extremely similar) "Sin City" films are at least interesting, innovative footnotes in two of the most widespread trends in movies: digital filmmaking and comic book adaptations. Rodriguez's near-total use of green screen to fill in the backgrounds was a minor landmark in painting with pixels. It gives the films a strange airlessness that makes "Sin City" initially bracing in its conceptual surrealism before the tedium of its shallowness sets in.

In a movie world so devoted to comics, "Sin City" tries like nothing else to faithfully transfer to the big screen the experience of reading one. But in the end, the filmmakers only highlight that such a union of mediums — strip and cinema — can lead down an empty rabbit hole.

Marlowe got out of his black pool. Miller just keeps falling.

"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," a Weinstein Co. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "strong brutal stylized violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and brief drug use." Running time: 101 minutes. Two stars out of four.

___

MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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