Sucker Punch film review

Given the tepid response from international critics and audiences to Sucker Punch, the latest action fantasy from 300 and Watchmen director Zack Snyder, several things surprised me when I watched the film:

1) Sucker Punch is surprisingly interesting thematically.
2) For a CGI-saturated blockbuster, Sucker Punch is exceptionally well acted.
3) Although the film's heroines kick ass in skimpy clothing, Sucker Punch is neither salacious nor exploitative.
4) The big action scenes are typically the weakest part of the film.

In terms of plot, Sucker Punch comes across like a frenzied blending of Return to Oz, Pretty Baby, Shutter Island, Sin City, and, even Charlie's Angels - all set to a rocking contemporary score. Already traumatised by her mother's death, Babydoll (Emily Browning) is hauled off to a mental asylum after retaliating against her lecherous, abusive stepfather. Scheduled for a lobotomy in under a week, Babydoll retreats from her reality into 2 separate levels of fantasy. On the first level she and the other young female patients are unwilling prostitutes, imprisoned in a brothel by vicious mobster Blue (Oscar Isaac). On the second deeper level, Babydoll and her friends are a band of essentially time travelling female warriors, headed by Scott Glenn's adage-spouting general, on a quest to find 5 objects that will set them free.

It all sounds very odd, and it is, although it does make for a highly interesting, if not always coherent, viewing experience. Director Snyder is not dissimilar to Inception's Christopher Nolan in terms of his cinematic game playing. Sucker Punch is Snyder's first wholly original film (he wrote the script) and he jumbles the expected narrative structure, continually plays with the nature of story – filtering “real” events through multiple levels of imagining - and even inserts a plot twist, a “sucker punch” that I'm still trying to get my head around.

It's worth noting that Sucker Punch is a dark movie. If you're looking for a jolly good time, well, there's not a single moment of humour in this bleak movie. Yet again for a Snyder film (see 300 and Watchmen), beautiful women are targeted for rape and general physical abuse by disgusting men who laud their power over the ladies.

Of course, Babydoll's fantasy sequences are a response to this sense of female impotence. The problem here though – and in fact the biggest problem I had with the movie – is that these quest scenes, which are the film's big selling point for fantasy fanboys and girls, feel too effortless. And therefore too boring. With the exception of the bomb-on-a-train mission, there is no sense of challenge or consequence. It's all good and well that the girls discover their inner strength and confidence in these fantasy worlds, but for characters to be thrown through walls, beaten and blown up without a single bruise or scratch doesn't help the audience engage or care. Events can feel choreographed. They just can't feel fake, which they unfortunately do here.

And honestly, where's the difficulty in fighting sword-wielding knights and orcs with assault rifles?

As hard as the fantasy battles strive to ramp up the coolness factor – giant demon Samurai, steam-powered German zombie soldiers, mechs vs. zeppelins, Desert Eagle wielding robots etc. etc. - the sequences are duller than the brothel scenes. The reason for this is that the latter scenes are exceptionally well acted for a blockbuster. Sucker Punch may not be subtle, and may not require anything more than emotional shorthand to get its points across, but the film features arguably the best performances of any Snyder movie.

Browning as the pouty, no-nonsense lead is a bit vapid but everyone else is superb, and the likeability of the girls helps to make them more than simply babes for viewers to perv over. Abbie Cornish and especially Jena Malone do great work as chalk-and-cheese sisters Sweet Pea and Rocket. Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung are similarly appealing, but unfortunately suffer from Hollywood's noticeable tendency to stick women of colour in secondary, disposable roles even if they demonstrate their combat competence. Carla Gugino meanwhile is stellar, as always, in her dual role of a psychiatrist and erotic dance instructor, trying to mother the girls while in massive denial about her authority in Blue's brothel. Speaking of Blue, Oscar Isaac, after memorable appearances in Agora and Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, impresses here yet again as a power-hungry bully who hides his violent temper behind claims of good intentions.

Given the strength of the performances, and the fact that it's through her dances for clients that Babydoll segues into fantasy heroine mode, it's a pity that we have to wait for the director's cut of Sucker Punch for more brothel content. Apparently 18 minutes were edited from the movie to drop it from an R to PG-13 rating, and that includes at least one big dance sequence glimpsed in the trailers.

The inclusion of dance numbers may be as jarring as the Tales of the Black Freighter segments in Watchmen, but it's immensely frustrating that the theatrical cut of the movie denies the audience a chance to see Babydoll's apparently unforgettable moves. One of the best, most potent moments in Sucker Punch, in fact, takes place when Babydoll's dance is interrupted and the fantasy facade starts intermittently slipping, with deadly consequences. If only this fragile linkage of realities was explored more often and more explicitly in the film.

There's no denying that Sucker Punch is flawed. I'd struggle to give the theatrical cut more than a 6 out of 10. However, the film is not terrible, as some people have been describing it. Not at all. And it's likely that over time, and especially once the director's intended version is released, that Sucker Punch's reputation will grow. It's definitely interesting enough right now to be worth a viewing.


MJenks said…
Like I said, it's very much like a live-action anime...which anime series often suffer from many of the same things that you described.

I thought that Babyface's vapid expression was appropriate because, I took it as, this was the face she was making throughout those few seconds before the needle enters her brain, and the smile at the end when she was distracting the guys outside the asylum/brothel, was the look he gave the doctor which ultimately brought the whole thing crashing down on Blue.

But, maybe I was reading too much into it. I'm glad you didn't give it the "awful" tag like so many others. And, I agree...even Ichigo gets beat up/bruised/scratched/cut during fight scenes in Bleach. A little bit of visible wounding would have been nice to see on the girls during and after fight scenes.
Thomas Watson said…
To me the two voiceovers felt like the only "real" parts of the story, and that the ending voiceover felt the same way the Harry Potter epilogue did: lines slapped on to serve as bookend.

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