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Sucker Punch

Through much of Sucker Punch, one thought kept buzzing in the back of my head: Zack Snyder will show me amazing fight scenes in his upcoming Superman movie. The problem is, I was supposed to be concentrating on Sucker Punch, one of the most aptly named movies in the history of cinema. It offers so much of what you'd think you'd want in a movie. But then… BAM!

Though it shows Snyder's great artistry and ability to dazzle, it also exposes his weak spots in a nice soft focus. The movie it most calls to mind is Heavy Metal, only it's not quite as coherent. Some may not find that a drawback, and more power to you, but things that sizzle may also burn.

That sounded pretentious. Sorry. But Sucker Punch pulls the same trick.

In the cold, clear light of day, it's still easy to respect what Snyder was going for, reaching for the heightened unsubtle emotion of opera, grand guignol and bad Shakespeare. Like Baz Luhrmann's Red Curtain Trilogy, Snyder opens in a theater, curtains opening to reveal Baby Doll (Emily Browning) on an obvious set, hunched over on her bed. We are distanced; we are drawn in. At least in theory.

The camera swoops around to place her firmly in a film, in her actual bedroom while the soundtrack blares Browning herself covering the Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." Nothing subtle, but nothing needs to be.

Using the false pacing of slowing down and speeding up scenes, Snyder lays out the central conflict. Baby Doll's mother has died, and when fighting with her skeevy stepfather, she accidentally shoots her sister. Thus it's off to the asylum with her, a corrupt place where some well-placed bills will allow a man to lock away his troubles, and maybe have them lobotomized, too.
There Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) works with the inmates with some kind of vague drama therapy, and as Baby Doll looks on, the threat of lobotomy turns into just part of a cabaret act. For Baby Doll has retreated into a fantasy where the girls are all high-priced (and essentially imprisoned) dancer-courtesans, with the new girl being rushed into preparation for a "High Roller."

Since you know from the trailers that there's yet another level of fantasy, let's call this film the Maxim magazine version of Inception.

Though many girls lurk in the background, Baby Doll focuses on four – Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). While some might defend this movie as being about female empowerment in a weird way, that just doesn't stand up. These characters are cut-outs, defined only by nicknames and skimpy clothing. Wait – Rocket and Sweet Pea are sisters, and there's some squabbling there and veiled references to their past, but nothing to make anyone actually care.

We aren't meant to, of course. Sucker Punch is about appealing to our fantasies without giving us too much. Even the level that's supposed to be real plays out in CG; all the world's a stage, and everyone in Sucker Punch are but poor players upon it.
For they all have analogues in Baby Doll's fantasies. The evil stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) doubles as a not-so-kindly Irish Priest. The corrupt asylum worker (Oscar Isaac) taking a special interest in Baby Doll's case turns into the crime lord running the cabaret. Dr. Gorski becomes their choreographer/warden.

And the girls? Well, we don't see enough of them in the "real" world to tell how they differ.

As for that other level – each girl needs to have a special dance of seduction, and Baby Doll turns out to be so sexy in her dancing as to be hypnotic. So in her haze there is a level of empowerment; in her fantasies, she's so sexy as to be utterly, utterly stupefying. Except when she dances (and, perhaps thankfully for Browning's dignity, we never actually see it), she hypnotizes herself and goes into that third level.

On that level, it's as if Snyder assembled every Playmobil and Brio playset he could find and just let loose. Each set piece supposedly correlates with a real world mission to get the elements needed for the girls to escape. Any metaphorical connection with the main narrative is non-existent, though. But man, do they look cool, at least for a while.

As loud and noisy and yes, sometimes visually satisfying as Sucker Punch can be, it just feels hollow. Every intellectual point – and that term hangs loosely, I know – gets hammered home over and over just in case you might miss it. Ultimately, it adds up to a nothing that I won't spoil in case you have found a reason to still care, but believe me, as an ending it is a sucker punch.

With a good script, Snyder could be capable of something great. He also needs someone above him to rein in his impulses to excess. It may be my own irrational love for the character that still lets me hope for Superman.

Where Snyder needs work is in dealing with actors. Yes, he creates great visuals; he knows how to pour on the spectacle. But he gets a flat performance out of Scott Glenn, normally an actor that I consider underrated for how powerful he can be. Gugino is all accent, and the young women simply aren't given anything challenging enough to judge.

As a videogame – the visual language of which Snyder borrows heavily -- Sucker Punch would probably be lauded. On the flip side, it's admirable that Snyder at least reached for creating something original. A Frankenstein's Monster shambling hot heap of anime/Playstation/softcore soporific of an original, sure, but at least we've never seen anything like it before. Well, at least not all in one place.

Sucker Punch is the wrong kind of knock-out.

Post-script: I really DID like the soundtrack, however. Hence the link above.


Derek McCaw

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