“You cannot defeat the goddess,” says her protector, the brute Manute (Dennis Haysbert). “She cannot die.” He’s talking about Ava Lord (Eva Green), the wife of a Basin City plutocrat and the embodiment of irresistible evil in Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Green has described Ava as less a woman — and she is all woman — than a weapon, an improvised erotic device that explodes in the heart, guts and gonads of every man she meets — like Dwayne McCarthy (Josh Brolin), a crime photographer whom Ava played and betrayed some years back. He knows she’s poison, telling her, “I was born at night, but I wasn’t born last night,” yet he returns for another toxic dose. The woman is bad.
Eva’s Ava is the essential new ornament to the gaudily entertaining, occasionally wearying sequel that Robert Rodriguez has spun out of Miller’s Sin City comic books. Using motion-capture technology to duplicate the pulp originals — same settings and visual points of view, same dialogue, same black-and-white palette dabbed with flashes of lightning and splashes of blood — this movie and its 2005 predecessor proudly brandish the neo-noir aesthetic (or faux noir, if you think it doesn’t work). The men are tough, growly and haunted; the women are all sexy, and either sisters of mercy or, like Ava, angels of death. The viewer is encouraged not to hover above the dank, alluring milieu but to wade in and wallow there, to get as dirty as its denizens. It’s a movie mud bath that I found nearly as restorative as a spa treatment at the Dead Sea.
The four stories in Sin City 2 reconvene many of the first film’s characters. Marv (Mickey Rourke in a more battered face than he displayed in The Wrestler) enforces his own outlaw law with the maxim, “Nothin’ wrong with killin’ a bunch of bad guys. It’s practically my civic duty.” He watches over Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), a sad stripper whose old protector John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) got killed last time but keeps a postmortem watch, his forehead bearing the X scar of a villain’s bullet.
Down in Old Town dwell a flock of Valkyries — righteous babes skilled in archery and knife-craft, led by the dominatrix Gail (Rosario Dawson, outfitted in the world’s bustiest bustier). Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) dishes out pain to those who would challenge his corrupt hold on the city, and Dwight (Brolin taking over the role from Clive Owen) is again on the receiving end of broken hearts and limbs.
(READ: Corliss’s review of the first Sin City)
A few newbies are added into the mix: Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cocky card sharp who underestimates the price of beating Roark at poker; Kroenig (Christopher Lloyd), a shady medic who tends to Johnny’s busted fingers; the sado-master Joey (Ray Liotta), photographed by Dwight during a sick tryst; the entrepreneur Wallenquist (Stacy Keach, encased in Jabba the Hutt facial flab and a polka-dot bow tie), whom Ava has use for; and Mort the cop (Christopher Meloni), who falls hard for Ava, directly to his doom.
Movies are rated R for sex and violence, and A Dame to Kill For has plenty of both. There are no fewer than three eyeball-ectomies, and a cutlery scene that turns a villain’s redoubt into a decapitorium. A despondent Nancy scars her own face, leaving phosphorescent Frankenstein stitches. But the mayhem is mostly aestheticized by the black-and-white-and-red-all-over visual scheme. A fight may be shown in silhouette against a brick wall — a throwback to the first animated feature, Lotte Reinger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and an old trick wielded by Rodriguez, the try-anything magician. Even if you don’t care for the characters or the story, you should agree with Dwight, after he takes his snoop photos of Joey: “The sad thing is, some of the compositions are pretty good.”
(FIND: The Adventures of Prince Achmed in the all-TIME Top 25 Animated Features)
As for the sex: that’s Ava. She is the prime force of evil, and Green is the new movie’s reason for being. In a film era that mostly ignores womanly allure for guy-on-guy battles and bromance, Green has played the unregenerate temptress from The Dreamers (her debut) to 300: Rise of an Empire, with the miniseries Camelot and Penny Dreadful in between. But Ava was the role waiting for her. Her huge emerald eyes glare above a blue silk gown in the monochrome murk; her body is often shown nude, in a swimming pool or on a bed, in the Cubist caress of Venetian-blind slats. Ava’s siren call summons Dwight there, imploring him to take his revenge on her body: “Make me hurt like I hurt you.”
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is heavy on comic-strip hurt. It’s a big hurt but, for a late-August time-waster, a good one.
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