REVIEW: Sucker Punch [2011]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 110 minutes | Release Date: March 25th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Zack Snyder
Writer(s): Zack Snyder & Steve Shibuya / Zack Snyder (story)

“It will be a deep sacrifice and a perfect victory”

If you’re going to make an R-rated film, you better well do so. Zack Snyder is a director who has been given the green-light to go for broke on all his adult-fare, (I exclude Legend of the Guardians from his oeuvre here), towards box office glory. So, when the time came for his passion project, you’d believe the studios would sit back and let him weave his magic. But then came Watchmen’s fiscal failure and questions about the man’s true artistic worth. Did he have the clout to deserve such freedom? Well, without knowing the complete story, I have to believe the economic hit taken by his masterpiece adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel made the moneymen nervous, possibly strong-arming a PG-13 cut for his darkly violent Sucker Punch. Star Emily Browning has talked about a ‘steamy’ scene with Jon Hamm being cut and, while watching, there were at least two instances where an f-bomb was audibly chopped to the floor. Maybe it was neutered and the DVD cut will show a wild ride of perfection, but the film being released in theatres just simply isn’t as good as its potential.

I equate this to Darren Lynn Bousman’s horror musical Repo! The Genetic Opera. Both were visions from an auteur that had a successful aesthetic, deciding to bring an original story to life. The works are impressively and admirably ambitious, induce fanboy excitement on paper due to their creativity and fearlessness, and yet underwhelm and crumble underneath lofty goals and an unsuccessful transfer from idea to screen. Snyder knows what we want and he attempts to give it, but a feature film resting on a flimsy treatment more suited to an action-packed short cannot be sustained. His opening sequence, almost completely devoid of dialogue save Browning’s own cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, rifling through the events following the death of her Baby Doll’s mother, is magnificent. Tonally superb, aesthetically gorgeous, and dripping with psychologically nightmarish imagery, the actions that land her in an asylum for the mentally insane set the stage for brilliance. These five or so minutes before the title passes across the screen are a macabre dance, punching the film’s dark ambitions straight through you. And then it falls apart.

The concept is intriguing—five young girls trapped inside a mental hospital, sexually abused by an over-zealous orderly (Oscar Isaac’s Blue), escaping into their imaginations to find the strength to achieve freedom. It’s in their minds where they can overcome their tragic lives, fight evil, and procure the items needed for escape: a map, fire, a knife, and a key. The fantastical action exists inside Baby Doll’s precarious grasp on reality, all sense of self destroyed by the stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) who left her aggressive 20-year old alone while going after the younger sister. The high-octane battles manifest during her mentally detached, sexual gyrations—never shown onscreen—meant to satiate the desires of the hospital’s male employees. While she dances, her friends use their own feminine wiles to grab each piece of the puzzle for exodus, each simultaneously transported into Baby Doll’s world of robotic warfare. For Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung), the hope for emancipation is the first positive they’ve had since imprisonment and Dr. Gorski’s (Carla Gugino) once tired use of therapeutic theatre provides the perfect cover to distract those who can stop them.

Where Sucker Punch ultimately fails is in its repetition. Each item needed means Baby Doll must dance, hypnotizing the grown-ups with her exotic sensuality, while the girls sneak around to collect their tools. No matter how kinetic the fights, how loud the explosions, or how cheesy Scott Glenn’s Wise Man spouts his pithy morsels of guidance, the sequence of A-B-C, stir, and repeat overpowers the sensory overload, exposing its lack of variety. I won’t lie, Browning’s first arrival inside her imagination was exciting—how can a cute girl wielding swords against a trio of giant samurais not be? Blue and his henchmen disappear, replaced by a post-apocalyptic world where the girls can work out their aggression and retain whatever humanity still exists. But once a mission is successful, once they can cross out an acquisition on the chalkboard and progress towards the next, the whole game starts over. We know the bottom will fall eventually—Blue catches on early, making us wonder when he’ll finally put a stop to the charade—so the fact it continues to drag along only frustrates in its ignorance to our own cunning with the film’s secrets.

A narrator at the start speaks about guardian angels and the many forms they take while the central group of girls prove broken and in need of such. So, we carry through the dreams and layers, waiting for Hamm’s High Roller to arrive and end Baby Doll’s life once and for all; we dismiss the earnest line readings as an attribute of the imaginative filter all action is seen through; and we revel in the girls’ ability to overcome adversity and survive by working together for a common cause. We do all this in hopes of a payoff worthy of such blindness, only finding answers that think they’re smarter than they truly are. The question of who’s story is actually being told rears its head as though some unforeseen revelation when, if you were paying attention, its obvious ambiguity had been nagging from the start. If all the carnage existed inside Baby Doll, why were they not in the asylum when they came back to reality? Why instead did they land into another world, between dream and reality, of an inescapable nightclub brothel of sorrow?

It’s that lack of surprise turned to impatience and incredulity at the filmmakers’ misguided thought they’d pulled one over on me that’s unshakable. The plot plods along as a result, rehashing itself until revealing an insufficient payoff. The girls do well, adding a mix of fun with the sadness underlying their backgrounds, in high styled, over-produced roles; Isaac trumps all with his amoral sleaziness, basking in the surrounding lust; another strangely utilized soundtrack, like in Watchmen—featuring Emiliana Torrini’s cover of “White Rabbit” and Björk—works for the most part; and the visuals never disappoint to assault senses and make the screen awash in nightmarish tropes. Even the key’s climatic procurement manages to shock from a level of pitch-black tragedy, proving again how it was all meant to be a more graphic and memorable R-rated flick. What starts with a bang and drags through a sea of style with little substance finally culminates in its largest whimper, trying to tie all the character fracturing into a neat little bow. The attempt only subverts itself, however, revealing just how random and contrived—albeit gorgeous—it all was.

[1] (L-r) JENA MALONE as Rocket, EMILY BROWNING as Babydoll and ABBIE CORNISH as Sweet Pea in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ epic action fantasy “SUCKER PUNCH,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] SCOTT GLENN as Wise Man in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ epic action fantasy “SUCKER PUNCH,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[3] JENA MALONE, OSCAR ISAAC, and ABBIE CORNISH in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ epic action fantasy “SUCKER PUNCH,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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