Sucker Punch (** / ****)
Starring: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jamie Chung, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens
Director: Zach Snyder
To call Sucker Punch overwrought would be like saying that Charlie Sheen is slightly disturbed. After only a few minutes in, I felt silly for complaining last month about how loud I Am Number Four was, and that was just because of the ending. With Sucker Punch, it’s nearly the entire movie. Since I elect not to sit way back in the 150th row, I willfully put myself in harm’s way, but at the same time, theaters shouldn’t have to recreate Chuck Yeager’s speed-of-sound flight as if we were standing right next to it.
Anyway, I like getting my action heroine-chic on as much as anyone. I’m also up for mindless entertainment as much as anyone. I mean, five provocatively-dressed babes wielding katanas and machine guns, kicking serious ass – what’s not to like about that? After months of exposure to the life-sized character posters at my local megaplex, I eventually came around. Unfortunately, even those seeking a fun and mindless time at the movies also happen to appreciate those minor annoyances known as storytelling and characterization. The girls’ slinky wardrobe is the least of this triple-decker stentorian dichotomy of a movie’s problems.
Director Zach Snyder and screenwriter Steve Shibuya make the foolish decision to couch three stories into one. What’s sad about Sucker Punch is that it actually starts strong out of the gate. In 1950s Vermont, following the death of her mother, a nameless young woman (Emily Browning) and her younger sister are nearly killed by their horrible stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) in his attempt to collect their inheritance. She tries to return the favor but accidentally kills her sister. This gives the stepfather an excuse to have her committed to a mental asylum on the grounds of insanity. (We’re reminded three times during this segment alone that the movie takes place in Brattleboro, Vermont. Plus, both the city and state are prominently displayed on outdoor signage all over the institution grounds. Only in the movies.)
Even worse, the stepfather has arranged with asylum director Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) to have a lobotomy performed on his stepdaughter, who’s offhandedly labeled “Babydoll” by Blue, and the nickname sticks. Babydoll happens to have a vivid imagination, and she soon visualizes the drab institution as a live-in brothel/dance hall, with her assigned therapist Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) now the dance instructor. Babydoll soon befriends four other generically-monikered girls: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Amber (Jamie Chung), and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens). And what are they soon conspiring to do? Escape, of course. It’s just as contrived as this all sounds.
And here’s when Sucker Punch becomes ludicrous. The girls’ escape plan mainly consists of a silly scavenger hunt for four items that are blatantly telegraphed early on upon Babydoll’s entry into the asylum. In order for her cohorts to secretly steal them, she has to distract the predominantly male staff by performing some kind of undoubtedly sultry dance routine (never seen by the audience) that magically transports her to some kind of green-screen fantasy world, complete with a withered Scott Glenn dispelling memorable self-help blather such as “You are afraid; don’t be, you have all the weapons you need.” Babydoll takes his advice by annihilating giant Gatling gun-wielding CGI samurai. It’s like playing sudden-death hopscotch in order to win a Scrabble game.
This, of course, soon becomes a pattern: They need something, Babydoll dances, and we’re off to other grandiloquent fantasyland sequences, which has our fearsome quintet emptying hordes of magazines into zombie Nazis in a shameless battle scene that makes the climax of Bedknobs and Broomsticks look like World at War archive footage. In what borders on a ripoff of the Balrog-vs.-Gandalf scene from Lord of the Rings, Babydoll later has to slit the throat of a baby dragon while “watching out for the mother,” all for some unexplained reason. The items? No more than a lighter, a map, a knife, and a key. Quite an overambitious bunch, these girls.
Not only is there no real motivation for the girls’ mission, we’ve all griped about lack of character development in movies at one time or another, but here it’s the real deal. The protagonists have the depth of a thimble as Snyder never gives them a backstory nor any reason whatsoever for the audience to care about them. Cornish and Hudgens are in their second wasted roles this month alone. All we know about Sweet Pea is that Rocket is her younger sister, and, despite being the oldest of the bunch, is the most annoying, as she’s the designated naysayer of the group who ultimately comes around. Blondie (who actually has black hair, which is supposed to be amusing), is completely useless altogether, along with Chung’s Amber and Malone’s Rocket. Fans of “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm will be sorely disappointed, as his role amounts to nothing more than a glorified cameo.
And yet I still found Sucker Punch entertaining, albeit in very small doses. Snyder honestly thinks he’s giving us a you-go-girl movie, but clearly had no idea how to go about doing so. What results is nothing more than a live-action graphic novel of Burlesque meets Tomb Raider . He and Shibuya seemingly are of the belief that female empowerment equates firing automatic weapons with reckless abandon at computer-generated baddies while not distracting sleazy men with risque dance routines.
Amidst the ridiculous pre-release hype was Snyder brazenly labeling this “Alice in Wonderland with machine guns.” As if to prove his point – because there can’t possibly be any other reason – a cover of “White Rabbit,” played in a loop during the Nazi battle scene, is brazenly included. With all due respect, in terms of feminist empowerment, Mia Wasikowska’s Alice and Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft pulled it off in spades. They brought smarts as well as grace and fierceness to the table. Sucker Punch fails on all three counts.
© 2011 Jane F. Carlson
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