Sucker Punch (Warner Bros., 2011)

“What the…well, maybe the fanboys will like it,” I can hear Warner Bros. executives grumbling during studio previews of Zack Snyder’s babes-in-arms folly, the sort of pet project that keeps an “earner” in the fold. But they didn’t, and I’m not feeling the love for it around here, either. Being a sucker for disaster, though, I plunged right into the 127- minute version that’s available on Blu-ray. The R-rated version, heh, heh…

The Story: Snyder’s feature debut, the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, had outstanding opening and closing credits and not much between the bookends. 300 (2007), his big one, didn’t rouse me, either, but there was a definite pulse, and a style, that held my interest. For me he arrived with Watchmen (2009)–problematic, and a boxoffice disappointment, though as good a long-form feature as could have been wrested from material best suited for a Game of Thrones-type miniseries on cable. It’s become one of those movies that’s when it’s on cable I can’t stop watching, for a few minutes anyway.

I missed his owl flick (yeah, like you saw it) and Sucker Punch cleared theaters fast. It sounds like a pretentious graphic novel adaptation but is actually Snyder’s first “original,” meaning, like so many “originals,” it’s cobbled together from spare parts to look like new. (Which is not  a bad thing; Franken-films like Splice have a lot going for them.) What we have here is the grrl power version of Shutter Island, with dollops of The Wizard of Oz, Moulin Rouge!, and every balls-out action movie and videogame Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya could get their hands on.

Sounds like a recipe for cinematic acid indigestion, right? Plot summary won’t help smooth things.
Babydoll (let the provocation begin!) is sent to the nuthouse by her wicked stepfather and prepped for an unauthorized lobotomy. As the clock winds down Babydoll (Emily Browning) floats in and out of various fantasy worlds. Imagining the asylum as a brothel she’s added to the playthings of a conniving orderly (Oscar Isaac) and a Teutonic therapist (Carla Gugino). Amber (Jamie Chung), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Rocket (Jena Malone), and Rocket’s sister, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), perform erotic dance routines for the clientele. Babydoll’s send her into a fugue state, wh

ere, with the help of the enigmatic Wise Man (Scott Glenn) she leads her newfound sisterhood into battles against demon samurai, steampunk World War I zombies, and other fantastic perils. These encounters–scored to lengthy covers of songs like, I kid you not, “White Rabbit”–are mirrored by events in the real world, as the girls plot their escape before Babydoll’s fated encounter with “The High Roller” (Jon Hamm), who has been promised her virginity.

That’s about as sordid as a PG-13 (its theatrical rating) gets these days. That the girls are pictured as fantasy objects, with clinging skirts and the accoutrement of the whores-in-training that Babydoll imagines them to be, irked critics–sure, it’s games-playing, but what we’re seeing is presented to us literally, inviting us to leer. Anyone expecting the chastity belt of the PG-13 to fall away in the R-rated extended cut will, however, be disappointed. (Apparently the MPAA balked at the key scene between Browning and Hamm, which is all honeyed talk and implied action.) Snyder, alas, is also a choirboy regarding his theme–a sequence that traffics in Heavy Metal-ish objectification is followed by a scene where the characters talk about their objectification. The movie clanks to a halt as we’re lobotomized with empowerment jargon. He announces himself as the avenging conscience of the “wrong” kind of movies and games that as he sees as paying lip service to standing up for the little girl, which makes him more of a prude than a prophet. (Isn’t the numbing brutality of revenge fantasies more the problem than what the vengeance seekers are wearing? For all I know the best way to seek retribution is in leathery, feathery undergarments.) The “sucker punch” is aimed squarely at the fanboy rabble, those misogynists and masturbators, who understandably rejected being bit by the hand that feeds their fantasies.

Then again Sucker Punch was always destined to flop, as it conforms to my one outstanding contribution to film studies, namely, the Zeppelin Theory of Film Failure, which in a nutshell holds that any film with a zeppelin in it will fail. Southland Tales, The Golden Compass, The RocketeerA View to a Kill, The Hindenburg, Zeppelin–not counting sequels (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) an unbroken string of disappointment. You have to go back to 1930 to find the last successful one, Hell’s Angels. The movie was a goner the second an airship lurched into view.

Audio/Video: But for all this tsk-tsking–sucker punch!–I didn’t have a horrible time with Sucker Punch. With all the borrowings its story and structure aren’t half as clever as Snyder thinks and I imagine even the 110-minute theatrical version drags, as however stylized the “money” sequences are fairly repetitive shoot-em-up stuff. But the thing leaks conviction, sometimes at the expense of talent–Browning sure looks like a baby doll but focus always shifts to the more interesting Malone and Cornish when all the girls are sharing the same frame (and Isaac and Gugino, two terrific actors, are a hoot performing “Love is the Drug,” a left-field touch the  movie needed more of). And, no surprise, DP Larry Fong’s otherwise chilly, steely palette looks sensational when it bursts into fantasy colors in HD (MPEG-4 AVC, 1080p, 2:40:1 aspect ratio), a look complemented by a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack that roars and rumbles through your living room.

Special Features: Quantity-wise, not much–some animated backstories to the fantasy segments and a brief behind the soundtrack segment with Snyder and composers Tyler Bates and Marius De Vries, both on the first theatrical edition disc, are 2/3 of it. Quality-wise, however, the extended disc has an outstanding “Maximum Movie Mode” video commentary with Snyder, whose enthusiasm exploring ever facet of the film in a picture-in-picture format is infectious. This is the kind of track budding filmmakers are bound to find useful…

Bottom Line: …and so long as they aren’t inspired to make too many films like Sucker Punch I’ll give Snyder the benefit of the doubt and grant his personal project a guarded recommendation. Divisive and not quite fully baked it has a hard-to-pin-down something (besides pulchritude) to keep you watching, and it leaves you wondering what his next Big One, Man of Steel, will be like.

About the Author

Bob Cashill

An Editorial Board Member of Cineaste magazine, Bob is also a member of the Drama Desk theatrical critics society in New York. See what he's watching on Letterboxd and read more from him at New York Theater News.

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