Film Review: Sucker Punch

Long on eye-catching images but lacking much in the way of plot, characterizations or a sense of humor, 'Sucker Punch' initially intrigues only to settle into noisy tedium.
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To date, Zack Snyder’s directorial career has consisted entirely of visually stylized, yet otherwise (too) faithful versions of other people’s material, from his remake of George A. Romero’s seminal Dawn of the Dead to his panel-to-screen translations of the popular graphic novels 300 and Watchmen. And for his next project, he’s taking on none other than the Man of Steel himself, which again puts him in the position of working with well-established iconography. (Snyder’s recent foray into animation, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, is something of an outlier—it’s based on a series of children’s books, but has more in common with darker cartoon fare like The Secret of NIMH.)

Snyder’s current film Sucker Punch, then, is designed to show us what exactly this guy is capable of putting onscreen when left entirely to his own creative devices. As it turns out, he’s still largely a mimic; though billed as an original screenplay, Sucker Punch is actually an amalgam of ideas, images and story points appropriated from such sources as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, European comic books, medieval fantasy, Japanese anime, music-videos and videogames.

Snyder also owes a great deal to a little movie called Inception—directed by Snyder’s producing partner on Superman, Christopher Nolan—in the way he has the film’s narrative play out across three different levels of reality. Sucker Punch opens in the “real world” (or what passes for it anyway), with a young woman (Emily Browning) witnessing the death of her mother and the subsequent machinations of her evil stepfather to cheat her and her sister out of their estate. Forced to defend herself with a pistol, she accidentally kills her sibling and is locked away in an all-girls asylum, where her guardian has secretly arranged for her to undergo a lobotomy in five days’ time. As a way of escaping her grim surroundings and horrible fate, she conjures up a fantasy world where the institution is actually a burlesque club and she’s the newest dancer, fresh off the bus from the orphanage.

In this reality, she’s given the name Babydoll and befriends some of her fellow hoofers, including siblings Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone), firecracker Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and token minority character Amber (Jamie Chung). With them, she conceives of an escape plan that will require stealing four objects from under the noses of the club’s manager, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), and their instructor, Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino). (Back in the real world, Gorski is the asylum’s resident psychiatrist, while Jones is an orderly who arranges backroom deals for unnecessary lobotomies at a price.)

The success of their plot—and I’m not kidding about this—rests on Babydoll’s wicked dance moves. See, she’s such an incredible dancer that men are literally hypnotized watching her, thus allowing her cohorts to take what they need without being noticed. But we in the audience never actually see her perform; instead, every time Babydoll strikes a pose, we’re transported to a world where she and her friends are warriors fighting their way through several videogame-like landscapes, from a World War I battlefront (complete with trenches and zeppelins) to a goblin-filled castle straight out of The Lord of the Rings. (Some of these action sequences go on for quite some time, leading one to wonder exactly how long Babydoll is dancing in the other reality. Wouldn’t all those wild gyrations exhaust her after five minutes?)

For a movie with such a ridiculous premise, Sucker Punch commits the fatal error of taking itself much too seriously. From the portentous narration that opens and closes the movie to the painfully banal conversations between the girls, Snyder strains for drama but instead settles for lots of sound and fury masquerading as drama. The only actor in the movie who seems to recognize its inherent camp value is Gugino, who merrily delivers all of her overripe dialogue in her best Natasha Fatale accent. On the opposite end of the acting spectrum, Cornish and Malone fully commit to giving nuanced performances, going to great lengths to wring emotion out of the most risible material. Their heroic efforts don’t improve the movie, but do help them stand out from the other young actresses, who walk through each scene as if it were a fashion shoot for the latest in fetish wear.

Snyder has never demonstrated much in the way of a sense of humor and that heavy-handedness suffocates Sucker Punch, which cries out for the same wit and playful spirit that Quentin Tarantino brought to Kill Bill Vol. 1, an infinitely superior genre mash-up-cum-girl-power action flick. The one weapon that the director has in his arsenal is a strong graphic sensibility behind the camera; as in 300 and Watchmen, Snyder designs his frames to act as the cinematic equivalent of comic-book splash pages, with an illustrator’s eye towards color, movement and perspective. As a result, there are individual images in Sucker Punch that are quite stunning, and the fight choreography is a cut above most chaotically edited action movies that Hollywood churns out these days.

Still, the crushing sameness of the action sequences—all of which are scored to eardrum-shattering cover versions of songs like “Army of Me” and “White Rabbit” and involve the girls defeating wave after wave of computer-generated opponents in slow-motion with finishing moves straight out of Mortal Kombat—makes the movie feel much longer than its 110-minute running time. If this is really the best thing Snyder can come up with on his own, then perhaps it’s best for all concerned that he remain a director-for-hire.