Real noir, even gothic strains like Mickey Spillane used to write, only works when it overwhelms. Protagonists and audiences need to be lured by a dame or a fortune into a world where best efforts can’t help. It’s the reason that people complain that Raymond Chandler mysteries don’t actually make sense. The main topic is the dizzying perplexities of the amoral new American city. The shadows, blood, and rain are just there to complete the mood. We like these stories because they make us feel tough (though safe) while taking the urban tour.
Frank Miller is a parodist. Everything he’s ever touched, from comic book Daredevil to Batman (The Dark Knight Returns) and now this film, based on his own comic book mean street chronicles, comes out in exaggerated splendors. But at the same time it’s all on the surface. He isn’t really good constructing narrative labyrinths — he just takes the darkness and the amorality out further than it needs to go. We don’t get lost in Miller machinations, we just wonder at the amount of it he’s piling on.
This is a gorgeous, decadent film, especially seen in 3D. The movie takes big dramatic visual shifts and contains endless slithering details. It’s film as storyboard. Miller’s graphic side brilliantly exploits black-on-black-on-white and then throws in color for a splash of shock. But this story is so simplistic that there’s nothing for our minds to get lost in. It’s a simple revenge story that ends in a simple revenge, even with the stupid flourishes like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s pointless gambling story. It just builds to a crescendo and lets you down. Even with Miller’s considerable urge to inflate his stories with gratuitous nudity and graphic slashes, it just isn’t complex enough to overwhelm. We don’t feel tough watching this silly sequel, we just feel taken.