The great virtue of Sin City is its clarity. If an extraterrestrial falls out of the sky and asks you what noir is, sit them down in front of the film or give them one of the comics it was based on. Frank Miller's creation isn't noir at its purest – it's noir at its most blown-up. All the subtleties of the genre are ripped away to reveal the machinery pumping underneath.
The brazenness is admirable for one reason only: it exposes the politics that structure the genre. The 'yarn' I felt did this best was the one I read first – A Dame To Kill For – which provides the centrepiece for the second film. Dwight is a Jekyll desperate to "never let the monster out" (no cigs, no booze, no women). Men in Frank Miller's world are rapacious animals, at their best when they grovel before female goddesses, at their worst when they assault the divine feminine that provides the only moral force in the world. Galahad and Lancelot are the exemplars, devotion to the unattainable Guinevere the rock upon which righteousness is built. To simplify, the bad guys beat and rape women and the good guys stop them.
A Dame To Kill For destabilises this manichean outlook by introducing a goddess who turns out to be a witch. The femme fatale uses sex rather than violence to achieve her ends. Nonetheless, there is a proto-feminist tone present in Ava's determination never to have to lie on her back to get what she wants. Here at least a woman is allowed to have a will-to-power of her own, rather than be an object of male worship or denigration. Needless to say, Dwight must terminate this assertiveness and avenge the good men she has ensnared.
The third story in the film finally gives a woman's voice to the protagonist role - this time it's Jessica Alba avenging Bruce Willis. The film bottles it a bit by having Hartigan come back from the grave to distract Rourke just enough for Nancy to shoot him. Does Rourke develop a conscience in those final moments, or does Nancy have the force of will to somehow project her own guardian angel into the world? Or is it actually a real ghost? If the latter, then the film robs the only female protagonist of agency just as its prospect is within reach.
The first film was a success partly down to arrangement: two weaker stories were bracketed with a very strong third one, ending on a genuinely moving finale in which Hartigan commits suicide. The sequel doesn't have anything approaching so poignant a moment. While I loved the original book enough to forgive Eva Green and Josh Brolin's take on it, the two new stories were very slight. I'm just hoping the film makes enough money for Rodriguez to make a straight up adaptation of Hell and Back (the final book) with Johnny Depp, rather than compiling assorted new brainwaves occurring to an increasingly demented Frank Miller.