Many characters from the original reappear in A Dame to Kill For, including Mickey Rourke's Marv, Jessica Alba's Nancy and Willis's hirsute detective John Hartigan. A re-watch of Sin City is advisable to untangle some of the timelines, given the time that's elapsed since its release and this film functioning as both a prequel and sequel.
Two central storylines dominate proceedings, with the first concerning returning villain Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) giving both Joseph Gordon-Levitt's skilled gambler Johnny and stripper Nancy a reason to seek revenge. Splitting this narrative into two parts that bookend the film only serves to detract from our involvement in the tale, which culminates in an abrupt whimper.
In the occasionally repetitive second tale, Josh Brolin plays the role of Dwight McCarthy – a character previously played by Clive Owen in a story set after the events we witness in A Dame to Kill For and after he's had major plastic surgery. So it made narrative sense to recast. If you're confused, just see this non-linearity is good training for the next series of Doctor Who if nothing else.
Throughout the movie, co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller embellish the stories with frequent visual flourishes that are pleasing on the eye if lacking the 'wow' factor of their previous collaboration. They really should've emptied their wallets, combined resources and bought up all the green fabric in the world after Sin City to prevent us from becoming so desensitised to the highly stylised graphic visuals interwoven with live action that have dominated the likes of 300 and Sucker Punch.
It doesn't help that the 3D is only effective in the opening title sequence, being a waste of time for the rest of the movie. Surely this extra dimension should have been the movie's spectacular salvation? The end result contains the same levels of visual immersion (and arguably less) than the comic book style video for a-ha's 'Take On Me'. Either do 3D properly or stop skanking viewers out of extra money for inferior experiences.
The consistently engaging performances from the first-rate cast keep the film afloat, not the superficial eye candy. The powerplay between Johnny and Roark, particularly during their card games, is superbly realised by Gordon-Levitt and Boothe. They bring their battle to a tense crescendo, albeit one that gives way to a despondent feeling that much of what we've witnessed was totally inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
Josh Brolin brings a great deal of grit to the messed-up Dwight, while giving him enough compassion to make us root for him. It doesn't help that he's lumbered with a tediously expressive voiceover in which he describes and explains his every move using pretentious musings best left to Calvin Klein commercials. "Her kiss has a promise of paradise," he says in hoarse monotone at one point. It's almost like a film noir pastiche at times. If the intention is to lethargically lampoon the genre's style rather than celebrate and replicate it (which the first film did so well) then it feels like a pointless exercise.
It's also great to see Mickey Rourke back dominating the screen in a high-profile project, with the imposing figure of Marv straddling both narratives while bearing an uncanny resemblance to legendary English cricketer (and dubious tweeter) Ian Botham. The likes of Ray Liotta, Lady Gaga and Christopher Lloyd all pop up for one-off scenes that work well and don't feel like superfluous stunt casting. The desire to shout 'Great Scott!' when first seeing Lloyd is undeniably overwhelming, though.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For isn't the resounding triumph we craved, with its huge reliance on visual impact causing it to pale in comparison to its game-changing predecessor. But there are enough interesting moments shared with the intriguing characters of this nightmarish world to be glad that this sequel was finally made.
It still leaves us wanting to explore deeper and further into the dark recesses of the city and its squalid inhabitants, but with a follow-up that comes armed with a clever structure, stronger ideas, properly integrated 3D and doesn't take almost a decade to arrive. Here's hoping.