Title: Sucker Punch
Directed By: Zack Snyder
Starring: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn
High expectations can be a killer. Unfortunately for director Zack Snyder, he works extra hard to insert an insanely high outlook into every single thing that he does and lately, it seems to backfire big time. His brain is geared towards directing and visuals and that doesn’t serve him well as a writer. Whereas the basic concept of Sucker Punch combined with Snyder’s keen eye for the visually incredible had immense prospects, it diluted the script. Spectacular imagery without a sensible and engaging story isn’t a film, it’s a mere spectacle.
After the death of her mother, a series of ill-fated events wrongfully lands Baby Doll (Emily Browning) in the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane. Rather than do what they can to rehabilitate her, the staff accepts a bribe from Baby Doll’s sinister and greedy stepfather to lobotomize her. Just as the doctor’s about to hammer his ice pick through her skull, we’re whisked away to an alternate world, Blue’s (Oscar Isaac) club. That’s where she unites with Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung).
While this may be a step up from the hospital, Blue’s club is still very much a prison. If the girls don’t dance, they serve no purpose and Blue has no trouble eliminating his excess baggage. While at first, Baby Doll can’t seem to get in the groove, once she let’s loose and finally dances, she discovers she has the power to not only mesmerize spectators with her techniques, but transport herself to yet another world. It’s in this new realm that she meets the Wise Man (Scott Glenn) and learns that with the help of the other girls and four objects, they can all escape.
Apparently we should have taken the film’s tagline, “you will be unprepared,” more literally. No amount of groundwork can ready you for this chaotic story. Perhaps a second viewing will clarify some plot points, but, even if one viewing doesn’t exhaust you, it doesn’t seem like every story element was developed to entirely make sense anyway.
But let’s backtrack a bit to the opening sequence. Much like the beginning of Snyder’s last live-action film, Watchmen, the first few minutes of Sucker Punch are absolutely spectacular. It’s visually stimulating and oozing with character information none of which comes through dialogue. It’s perfectly paced and set to the tune of Browning’s impressive and wildly appropriate rendition of Annie Lennox’s “Sweet Dreams.” Unfortunately, things slow down and get quite talky once we hit the Lennox House, but it isn’t until the lobotomy that Sucker Punch really starts to drown in its convoluted and nonsensical plot.
There’s no denying that Snyder isn’t making this film to provide any sort of real life scenario in the least and there’s nothing wrong with that. The thing is, the experience still needs to feel real while you’re in the theater and that’s what Sucker Punch lacks. First off, a lot of the action is just too over-the-top. Browning’s first battle scene with some massive stone samurai somewhat resembles a battle a little boy might create playing with two action figures. There’s flipping, flying and landed punches that hurls our heroine back dozens of feet. Enhancing this unrealistic environment is the cartoonish setting. It’s far too obvious that at least 90% of this battle is computer generated.
In terms of action, things get quite a bit better in subsequent sequences. The best of the bunch is when all five ladies hit the battlefield and attempt to infiltrate a bunker. Again, the amount of bad guys they wipe out with ease is undeniably ridiculous, but at least it really feels like they’re there fighting. Then again, not once does it ever feel like they’re fighting for their lives. The girls are virtually indescribable. Throw one lady into a massive pile of enemy forces and they’ll emerge in one piece without even smudging their eye makeup. There’s no sense of suspense because you know they won’t die.
Back in the land of Blue’s club, they aren’t invincible, but that doesn’t work quite well either. When they’re not relying on their out-of-this-world fighting abilities, they’re relying on dialogue and the script is just not that good. The film’s more emotional moments are often rendered laughable by inane discourse or by plain old bad performances.
In general, Baby Doll is just a lame character. All she has is her fighting ability. We get such a fantastic taste of her past in the beginning, but then Snyder abandons all character development in favor of watching his star fly around jabbing her sword through CGI enemies. In fact, Baby Doll doesn’t even say much at all; Browning dons the sad eyes, sways her hips and then it’s time to fight.
On the other hand, Cornish and Malone have something to work with. Sweet Pea and Rocket are sisters and not only does Snyder actually take the time to develop a clear dynamic between the two, but both Cornish and Malone seize the opportunity to take that relationship to the next level and really make us feel for their characters. When something happens to these two whether it’s in the club realm or in the battle world, you genuinely feel for them. Some of their more heartfelt dialogue might be a bit on the tacky side, but these two are talented enough to make most of it work.
Hudgens and Chung, however, aren’t as experienced and it shows. There is nothing to these two characters at all. In fact, the film could have done without them entirely. Hudgens and Chung are merely there as ineffectual placeholders, which makes what should be one of the film’s most powerful moments, one of the most unintentionally hilarious.
As for the folks in charge, Isaac and Carla Gugino try, but there’s not much meat to their roles. Blue is far more fleshed out than Gugino’s character, the therapist in the Lenox Hill realm and the dance instructor in the club realm, Vera Gorski, and that certainly works to Isaac’s benefit. Gugino on the other hand, is stuck with a one-dimensional role that would be on par with that of Hudgens and Chung had it been played by a less talented actress. Kudos to Gugino and Isaac for giving it their all, but shame on them for not thinking twice about the musical number that plays during the credits.
Now for Snyder. The guy certainly knows how to put on a show. Sucker Punch is mesmerizing and, on the surface, quite entertaining. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that the spectacle fades fast and when you don’t have a properly structured story to serve as support, everything will eventually crumble. Nothing has the power to resonate because once you’ve left the experience, there’s nothing to hold on to. Sucker Punch is good, but it’s not complete. It’s almost as if Snyder jumped the gun and put on his director’s hat before the writing was finished and the results are underwhelming.
By Perri Nemiroff