Zack Snyder is undoubtedly a gifted filmmaker. While opinion on his work in films like “300” and “Watchmen” may be divided, even his harshest critics don’t question his eye for visuals. In his previous films Snyder has worked from existing material, and very strong and well written material at that. “Sucker Punch” is the director’s first time coming up with his own story. He takes the opportunity to create a story that lets him do pretty much anything he wants. However Snyder may not have been ready for this degree of freedom, as the result is truly a visually rich disaster.
“Sucker Punch” deals with a young woman known only as Baby Doll (Emily Browning.) Following the death of her mother she is left in the care of her lecherous and violent step father. When she fights back against him he has her committed to a mental institution. Once there Baby Doll finds out quickly that her step father has conspired with a corrupt orderly named Blue (Oscar Isaac) to have her lobotomized in five days time. This gives her very little time to mount an escape. She recruits the help of some of the other residents of the asylum, a rag tag group of girls with names like Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish,) Rocket (Jena Malone,) Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens,) and Amber (Jamie Chung.) The five girls must work together, but it becomes much more involved than a simple escape plan. In her mind Baby Doll is not at an asylum but rather at a dance hall/brothel and when she dances she escapes into epic violent worlds where her actions, and those of her new friends, have real world consequences.
The story in “Sucker Punch” may sound a bit complicated but basically it functions as little more than a Zack Snyder’s “get out of jail free” card that lets him create any action scene he wants. The fact that the combat sequences are more or less in Baby Doll’s head means that the girls can go from fighting steam powered clockwork Nazis to giant samurai warriors to dragons from one moment to the next without needing to explain anything. In theory it should let Snyder get away with whatever he wants, but there’s an immediate problem. The action sequences are meant to have real world consequences, for example when the team defeats a dragon it corresponds to their stealing a lighter in the real world. The problem is that Snyder doesn’t take the time to establish the rules of this relationship. If the girls are injured by say one of the steam powered clockwork Nazis does that correspond to some real world injury? This does eventually get established but it happens far too late in the film. Before that rule is set it’s completely unclear if the girls are really in any danger at all during the elaborate action scenes. This immediately takes the thrill out of them because they seem to be only dreams, which means no real consequences and no real danger. It’s hard to get wrapped up in a fight scene that is clearly a delusion, no matter how cool it is.
Everything is further complicated by the fact that the action scenes are two layers deep into fantasy. Almost immediately after entering the asylum Baby Doll constructs her dance hall/brothel fantasy interpretation. In this version of her plight the orderly Blue is a suave gangland style pimp who makes the girls dance to entice clients he can whore them out to. Blue runs the brothel with a tight grip and has clear control over everybody including the dance instructor (Carla Gugino,) who is the equivalent of the real world head doctor of the asylum. Again there’s a failure to establish the rules. Is Baby Doll simply seeing real events in different trappings or is her mind actually twisting what she sees into something new? In the real world does Blue openly control the doctor who should be his superior? Is he actually whoring out the mental patients? Does the doctor actually have the girls dance? If they’re not dancing than what is Baby Doll actually doing during her supposedly hypnotic dance routines? Some of these questions are answered very late in the film, some are never answered at all. However none of them are answered before the film delves to the second layer of fantasy and starts introducing the dream within a dream action sequences. So as mentioned before it’s not clear how the action scenes correlate to the next layer of reality (i.e. the brothel) and it’s not clear how the brothel correlates to actual reality. This means that for the majority of the film it’s completely unclear if anything shown has any true real world consequences. And the layers of fantasy aren’t some twist to try to blow the viewer’s mind, they’re presented up front and early but the lack of rules just makes everything impossible to invest in. This wouldn’t have been such a problem if the film didn’t take itself so seriously. It might have worked as a wild roller coaster ride of a movie if it wasn’t so clear that the audience is supposed to be emotionally invested in the fate of these girls, and that’s something that’s just impossible.
All of that said there is a definite artistry to the combat sequences in “Sucker Punch,” and Snyder takes full advantage of the fact that he can basically do anything he wants. There’s no need for him to tie his action down to any semblance of reality, and since each action scenes has a completely different setting he doesn’t even have to obey the same rules of combat/gravity/physics that he established in the last action scene. Basically he just goes nuts. Snyder’s previous films seem to have been leading up to this, and he unleashes visual splendors that were only hinted at in his previous films. It’s all extremely over the top and hyper stylized, but that’s clearly the point. There’s a certain video game quality to the action scenes, and that’s not being said as a bad thing. Snyder has succeeds in creating on screen the sort of epic battles that make up the most memorable modern video games, and that’s no small accomplishment. Unfortunately as mentioned all of this great inventive action work is completely undermined by lack of clarity to how it relates to reality and by the film trying to seem deep when it’s just an excuse to have girls in skimpy clothes kick a whole ton of butt. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of goal, but layering it with soap opera level dramatics takes the fun out of it.
Snyder really shows his roots as a music video director in “Sucker Punch.” To say music is extremely important to the film is an understatement. Setting the action scenes to music seems to have been as much the point as the action itself. The film actually opens with a dialogue free prologue that gives the initial set up to the film all set to a creepy version of “Sweet Dreams are Made of This.” Actually if the entire film had been in that same vein it might have worked. Snyder does seem to be operating on music video rules, where as long as the music and images sync up well enough the story details can be fudged. Had Snyder either cut most of the dialogue and gone for an almost entirely musical presentation he might have achieved an action equivalent to “Pink Floyd The Wall.” Unfortunately it doesn’t work on that level because too much time is spent in dialogue scenes that try to establish the story which keeps it from simply being a the pure musical action ride it probably should have been.
The performances in “Sucker Punch” aren’t particularly notable, though to be fair this is not an actor’s movie. It’s a fight choreographer’s and an editor’s movie. None of the work being done is bad, though Scott Glenn as the “wise man” giving the girl’s their mission before each combat scene is saddled with some painful dialogue. But as mentioned the film seems to forget its own purpose (i.e. girls kicking butt) by inserting scenes that seem to be there to deepen characters. Except that the characters are so shallow and thinly sketched out that those scenes just feel like pointless dramatics. Of the five girls two don’t get much personality laid out at all and the other three are very basic (skeptical, enthusiastic, etc.) There is one performance that does stand out though, and that’s Oscar Isaac as Blue. While the girls may be fighting everything from robots to knights in armor it’s Blue who’s the actual villain of the piece, and Isaac makes a fantastic villain. Blue’s dominance over the girls radiates from his every look and posture, he doesn’t need to be over the top mean or evil because he simply knows that he’s in complete control. The sense of power and authority that Isaac brings to the role is impressive and makes the villain probably the most fun character to watch.
For all the things wrong with “Sucker Punch” there are things to be enjoyed. Those looking for really inventive, no holds barred action scenes will find that here. Seen with the right crowd or the right group of friends the film does have the potential to get viewers wrapped up in the madness of it all. If only the film hadn’t been trying to hard to seem like it had more to say it could have worked as a thrill ride. Looking at the film as a highlight reel for the mind of Zack Snyder it shows what the man is capable of, and he’s unquestionably very visually talented. However it also proves that he desperately needs to be working from somebody else’s story. Snyder can bring a great visual flare and when it’s in service of strong material it can be great fun. This story is such a weak excuse for crazy action scenes, and it may have been meant to set him free but in the end it holds him back and just undermines everything.
Final Score: 2 out of 5