Most of the thrill of the original Sin City is gone in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s follow-up to their innovative 2005 graphic-novel adaptation, set in a stylized, digitally engineered world of black and white with splashes of color. The movie, which floundered at the box office when it debuted this past weekend, is just as intensely violent, lurid, and nihilistic as the first one, and this time, it’s in 3D, which lends an added oomph to its sometimes beautiful compositions. But Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is also stupefyingly — 100-plus minutes of just the climax of a story, everything turned up to 11, the characters so interchangeably hard-boiled that it can take a while to realize Josh Brolin is actually playing the same character Clive Owen did in the previous film.
It’s disappointing, except for the one thing Sin City: A Dame to Kill For does have that the first installment didn’t: a scene-stealing Eva Green, who, as Ava Lord, burns a giant hole in the center of the screen. In a movie in which Jessica Alba humps a stage and Mickey Rourke plucks out someone’s eyeball like he’s picking a particularly stubborn daisy, it’s not easy to be the center of attention, but Green easily dominates the gritty, gory affair. Her Ava is less femme fatale than dark deity, a goddess of self-destruction who men can’t help but cower in front of.
And Sin City: A Dame to Kill For isn’t the first hyper-macho Frank Miller sequel this year that Green’s walked away with — as Artemisia, the bloodthirsty villain in March’s 300: Rise of an Empire, she totally bowled over the indistinguishable muscly male lead (Sullivan Stapleton, if you’d forgotten). Ever since her 2003 debut alongside Michael Pitt and Louis Garrel in Bernardo Bertolucci’s racy The Dreamers and her 2006 stint as proto-Bond girl Vesper Lynd, Green’s proven to be a little too much for Hollywood — too formidable for happily-ever-afters, too much presence to be a character actor, too beautiful to be ignored, and too…goth-y? But in 2014, Green’s been carving out a distinctive career for herself as the scariest and most intimidating of sex symbols, and it’s been awesome to watch.
Aside from that graphic-novel green-screen double feature, the Year of Eva Green has included the actress’s acclaimed turn as troubled psychic Vanessa Ives in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, in which she shifts between serenely enigmatic, vulnerable, and terrifyingly animalistic. She’s also got upcoming roles as a “deliciously unhinged” mother (per Variety) in Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard and a ferocious, mute outlaw’s wife in Kristian Levring’s Western The Salvation, both due out later this year. But it’s her parts in the Miller adaptations that particularly stand out, because they manage to feel subversive in an environment that’s almost toxically heavy on the testosterone.
Miller’s near-parodic odes to the toughest of tough guys can’t help but sideline their female characters — his stories are, underneath the blood and sweat, deeply romantic about the business of being masculine in the most archetypal of ways. The men might die for the women, seek solace in them, get them killed, and avenge them, but the women themselves are rarely the focus. And yet…as Artemisia and Ava, Green disrupts this pattern by refusing to be an object who is primarily gazed at or acted upon. In Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, she’s just as sexualized as her fellow female cast members (including Alba, Rosario Dawson, Jaime King, Jamie Chung, and Juno Temple), but she’s fully in control. When she goes to lure her ex Dwight (Brolin) back after leaving him years earlier to marry a rich man, she shows up nude, in his bed, serene in her certainty that she has him. Her sensuality’s presented as a weapon, and he’s resistant and resentful even as he gives in — and the sex scene, which is strenuously athletic and shot in silhouette, ends with him crouched at her feet, like she’s poised to bite his head off, praying mantis-style.
Ava barely bothers to play the victim, rolling her eyes at the ease with which she wins over one of the cops on the case (Christopher Meloni) by playing on his lust and protective instincts. Both Sin City movies do some ludicrous things in the name of “strong female characters” (like the women of Old Town, who are organized, armed, and impossibly tough, but not tough enough to move on from prostitution to more lucrative crime, and who, btw, also frequently have hearts of gold underneath the dominatrix gear). But Green plays Ava as someone who, while psychotic, is also thoroughly in charge, and who deflates some of the grandiosity the film invests in its male characters’ grand gestures of sacrifice and obsession.
Green’s even more fabulously bonkers as Persia’s ruthless top naval commander in 300: Rise of an Empire, now out on DVD and Blu-ray — sprawling on her throne at sea, manipulating Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) into somehow transforming into a gilded giant, taking the heads of enemies and then making out with them. Artemisia is a survivor of prolonged violence who remakes herself into a fearsome warrior, and the film never really suggests her thirst for revenge is unfounded, making her feel at least as much antiheroine as antagonist.
Halfway through 300: Rise of an Empire, Artemisia and Themistocles meet for a parley that turns, natch, into more crazy sex. It starts with her grabbing his hair and leads to the two slamming each other into various surfaces around the ship before she tosses him out, leaving him stunned when he goes back to his colleagues. Artemisia’s desire, born out of how pleased she is to have found an opponent who can actually match her, drives the whole love-scene-as-battle-metaphor sequence, and it’s not suggested she’s giving up anything or losing stature because she chooses to act on it.
Artemisia is the lone woman in a world of men, but, as played by Green, she’s neither challenged because of this nor acting as just another one of the boys. She’s her own wild creation, unfettered but readily feminine, whether leaping into battle or donning an increasingly intense series of battle ball gowns (culminating in a dress that includes tasteful golden bone-spikes along the spine). Green commits to her material, no matter how pulpy, which is why this cartoonishly outsized character, a highly fictionalized version of an actual historical figure, comes so vividly to life. She’s not simply hamming it up — she’s as soulful as she is scary.
Green’s so good in these two watered-down sequels that it’s easy to imagine her kept in similar roles going forward — brash, witchy, and doomed. There are worse things that could happen, but she really deserves more, and Penny Dreadful comes closest to showing her range, from demonic force to unguarded romantic lead. And even in the Showtime drama, her character’s formative moment involved the love of a man who couldn’t keep up with her. But being a force of nature shouldn’t condemn someone to wan roles.