Where the heck is Sin City? Well, when the 7-foot, scarred-up street fighter Marv (Mickey Rourke) is out tooling around "this rotten town" he's evidently somewhere up on Mulholland Drive, cruising the Hollywood Hills, overlooking the milky lights of Los Angeles.
But when the damaged Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) is traveling through the endless night, bemoaning the fact that he can't free himself from the grip of the evil, sensuous siren Ava Lord (Eva Green), he's unquestionably on the Brooklyn waterfront, the Manhattan skyline serving as the backdrop.
Strictly speaking, the Sin City limits -- or lack thereof -- exist within the skulls of cartoonist Frank Miller and director Robert Rodriguez, who are up to their bad old tricks again.
Opening Friday, "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" is the sequel to "Sin City," Rodriguez and Miller's baroque exercise in noirish mayhem, which made such an impression back in 2005 with its black-and-white palette and graphic-novel- inspired aesthetic.
Nothing in the sequel is less than extreme, and that includes the cast. Few audiences, one would guess, are really on the fence about Rourke. Or Ray Liotta. Or Bruce Willis. Or even Lady Gaga (who has a cameo). Or Brolin. Or Green (who appeared in an anatomically explicit poster for the film that was rejected by the MPAA). Or Rosario Dawson. Or Christopher Meloni.
"I hope so," said Miller, "because the last thing I want is an audience to feel neutral about anything. I want Stacey Keach, not some milquetoast."
Stacey Keach? Oh, right: Keach is in there, too. Or rather under: Beneath pounds of makeup and special effects, Keach portrays a grotesquerie named Wallenquist, who looks like he got lost on the way to the "Star Wars" cantina.
Naturally, because the hard-core fans will expect it, the level of violence is extreme, although it's ameliorated somewhat by the comic-book sensibility of the film, the "Kill Bill" manner of excess, and a visual technique that, this time around, uses 3-D technology that attempts to draw the viewer inside one of Miller's graphic novels.
"The effects are much better than they were 10 years ago," said Rodriguez, acknowledging that the new "Sin City" has a slightly different look than the first one. "The earlier film was not as abstract as in Frank's book; it was a half step from what the books were. And people loved it. But this one we pushed much closer to the look of the book, and the 3-D really helps. But it's very stripped down."
Which is how Miller likes it.
"I like to strip things down to the minimum necessary to still tell the story and keep the reader's attention," said the man behind graphic novels "The Dark Knight" and "300," which also inspired movies. "I'm not an illustrator, I'm a cartoonist. I tell stories as simply as I can; I want to keep things as simple as possible and the thing about the 3-D here is Robert was able to pull elements forward in ways that really worked.
"Usually with 3-D you get swamped in stuff," he continued. "Eighteen million starships and 14 million dinosaurs. This is more like a psychotic director's room with a guy strapped to a dentist's chair."
Rodriguez and Miller had always planned to do another "Sin City," and once again, both are credited as directors (with Miller as writer).
"We're like a director with two heads," Rodriguez said. "We're very much on the same goal, bringing the graphic novel to the screen in a way which is very true to what Frank wrote. Occasionally, Frank would think of a new line and I'd say, 'No, I think it was better in the book.' Ultimately, if Frank smiles, I know we got it right."
In addition, Rodriguez said, a lot of what motivates Miller's characters is not exactly in the script. "When we're working, I talk to the actors, Frank talks to the actors, but a lot of the story is in Frank's head, so we ask him, 'Why is this character acting this way?' And I'm as enthusiastic as they are to hear the answers. That's why I wanted him to be on it, because so little is actually on the page."
Miller concurs. "I get to have all the fun of telling the actors the backstory."
Although Rodriguez says it "may have been a special effect," the two directors appear in the film themselves, during a sequence where the script calls for Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) to be watching an old movie on TV, where one wounded character tells another about "this rotten town . . . it soils everybody it touches."
"It was supposed to be an iconic line from an old movie, but we knew we'd never have time to get it shot," Rodriguez said. "So we said, 'let's just do it ourselves.'"
Amid the severed limbs, wasted characters, high-tech visuals and general carnage of "Sin City," Miller said, "it gave us the opportunity to shoot each other."
BLAZING HIS OWN TRAIL
Robert Rodriguez is part of a Hollywood tradition that includes Howard Hawks, George Stevens and Ang Lee -- directors comfortable in a variety of genres who aren't necessarily afraid of repeating themselves (see: "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For"). In 1992, Rodriguez shook up the Sundance Film Festival with "El Mariachi," a film made for the unheard-of sum of $7,000 and then picked up by a major distributor -- a seismic occurrence for American independent filmmakers. Rodriguez followed up with "Desperado," less a sequel than a remake of "El Mariachi" with a real budget, and later "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," a bona fide sequel, albeit one that never strayed far from formula. Here are some of his other movies:
THE FACULTY (1998) Probably most noteworthy now as one of Jon Stewart's errant career choices, this horror sci-fi mystery involves a group of students (Jordana Brewster, Josh Hartnett and Clea Duvall) who suspect their teachers are aliens.
SPY KIDS (2001) The beginning of the highly successful franchise (four films and counting) starred Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino as the world's greatest secret agents who, nevertheless, have to be saved by their plucky children, played by Alexa PenaVega and Daryl Sabara.
PLANET TERROR (2007) Half of the "Grindhouse" package that also featured Tarantino's "Death Proof" and parodied '70s exploitation fare, this was a pre-zombie-craze zombie thriller that featured Rose McGowan as a one-woman execution squad with a machine gun for a leg.
MACHETE (2010) Danny Trejo, one of the more memorable faces in the movies and an actor with 300 credits, finally played the lead, as well as a close-to-good guy in Rodriguez's ultraviolent revenge film, which also featured Lindsay Lohan as a nun and was based on a mock movie trailer Rodriguez had made to run between "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof." It might have been better than either of them.