When Sucker Punch arrived in cinemas earlier this year, it’s fair to say that its reception wasn’t particularly warm. While the film had its defenders, the overall consensus was that Zack Snyder’s dark action movie was best avoided.
My initial response to Sucker Punch was less than positive, but I was still intrigued to learn that the film had been heavily edited for its theatrical release. Warner, anxious to make Sucker Punch as audience-friendly as possible to ensure a potentially lucrative 12A certificate, had the film trimmed by almost seventeen minutes. Could it be, I wondered, that Snyder – a normally decent director, whose Dawn Of The Dead remake I greatly enjoyed – was forced to compromise his vision for the mighty dollar?
With the Blu-ray release of Sucker Punch restoring those seventeen lost minutes, I was intrigued to see whether an unexpurgated version of the movie could sway my opinion. But first, let’s rewind time a little, and remind ourselves of Sucker Punch’s plot and background.
Who draws the curtain?
The rather toxic reaction to Sucker Punch may have been at least partially due to its pre-release marketing. Heavily sold on its fantastical action, which featured everything from giant robots to fire-breathing dragons, and its quintet of shapely ladies who shot frantically and dressed scantily, the posters and trailers all hinted at a breezy action fantasy, like a videogame-influenced Charlie’s Angels.
As it turned out, Sucker Punch was more akin to a Hollywood reworking of Pan’s Labyrinth, with occasional forays into effects heavy, outlandish violence. Right from the opening sequence, in which young heroine Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is dragged off to a gothic mental institution following the accidental death of her sister, it was clear that the film Zack Snyder had concocted was far different from the one the posters suggested.
And from that opening, set to a worryingly oblique cover of the song Sweet Dreams (“Some of them want to be abused” Browning sings, as a wicked middle-aged man gazes lecherously at his two terrified stepdaughters), Sucker Punch turns darker still. Faced with the horrifying prospect of a lobotomy from a visiting doctor (Jon Hamm) within a matter of days, Baby Doll projects her mind into the safety of a fantasy world.
Oddly, this fantasy world turns out to be just as brutal as the reality Baby Doll leaves behind. She imagines herself as the latest arrival at a bordello run by ruthless criminal Blue (Oscar Isaac). Although still a virgin (a twenty-year-old virgin, as the film’s opening takes great pains to point out), Baby Doll is capable of dancing so provocatively that men are powerless to withstand its hypnotic allure. And during each dance, Baby Doll sends her imagination soaring off into violent, surreal fantasy worlds.
During her first flight of fancy, she learns from an awkward-looking Scott Glenn that she must locate four items in order to secure her freedom. And Baby Doll hasn’t got long to locate those items – echoing the imminent arrival of the lobotomist back in the real world, there’s just five days before a handsome millionaire called High Roller (also played by Jon Hamm) shows up to relieve Baby Doll of her virginity.
With time running out, Baby Doll enlists the help of four other dancers at the bordello to help her escape – tough, domineering Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), along with Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). What follows is essentially two movies mashed together: the first a stylised drama about a group of girls struggling to retain their sanity in the face of cruelty and abuse, the second an outlandish, CG-driven action movie vaguely akin to one of the numerous Resident Evil sequels.
A film of two halves
This collision didn’t work in the theatrical cut, and fails to gel even in the extended version. It remains the case that the parts of the movie set in the bordello and mental asylum are far more interesting than the rather weightless action scenes, which produce more heat than light in terms of pulse-quickening excitement.
It’s obvious that considerable amounts of time, money and ingenuity have been ploughed into these explosive sequences, which see the group of heroines battle dragons, undead World War I soldiers and robots whose heads shatter like glass, but they bear little psychological resemblance to the worlds Baby Doll leaves behind – it’s hinted that both the action scenes and the dances that trigger them are the psychological manifestations of Doctor Gorski’s (Carla Gugino) unorthodox therapy, though whether you realise this has little bearing on what happens.
When the young girl of Pan’s Labyrinth dreams up a magical fawn or an eyeless monster, those visions carry so much dramatic weight because we can see how traumatic experiences in the real world inspired them, like a distorted reflection in water. This isn’t the case, I’d suggest, in Sucker Punch – it’s as though Snyder admired this aspect of Pan’s Labyrinth, but failed to understand exactly why it was so emotionally resonant.
What the extended cut does reveal, though, is how much better thought out the film is outside its action scenes. An overlong and startlingly horrible cover of Roxy Music’s Love Is The Drug aside, Sucker Punch is now far more coherent with those extra moments slotted back in place.
In the theatrical version, any mention of Baby Doll’s virginity, and the High Roller’s desire to take it away, was carefully trimmed out. While it didn’t take a genius to figure out the reality of what was going on, it certainly muddied the sense of drama.
Missing in action
The most bizarre omission from Sucker Punch’s theatrical cut, though, is Baby Doll’s concluding encounter with the High Roller. In cinemas, the brevity of this scene implied that the Baby Doll had been forced to have sex with the High Roller against her will. Not only did this, when seen in tandem with the lobotomy scene that comes immediately after, give the movie a horribly mean-spirited conclusion, it also reduces Jon Hamm’s role in the film to one brief and utterly baffling moment.
Immediately after Hamm’s doctor delivers the final, lobotomising blow, he leans back and says, “Did you see that look she just gave me?” It’s a line that, in the theatrical cut, meant nothing.
With the offending scene now restored, things make more sense. The High Roller gently woos Baby Doll with a romantic overture worthy of William Shatner, and the heroine acquiesces – she takes fate head on, and accepts it with all the relish she can muster.
Emily Browning bemoaned the removal of this scene many months ago. “I had a very tame and mild love scene with John Hamm,” Browning told Nylon magazine. “I think it’s great for this young girl to actually take control of her own sexuality. Well, the MPAA doesn’t like that. They don’t think a girl should ever be in control of her own sexuality because they’re from the Stone Age.”
While Sucker Punch still ends on a dark and enigmatic note, its message is at least clear – by helping Sweet Pea escape, Baby Doll’s achieved her goal, and by calmly accepting what will happen instead of struggling against it, she manages to claw back the morsels of power and dignity that her captors have denied her throughout the film.
Life has a flavour the sheltered will never know
Even in its lengthier form, Sucker Punch remains a messy film, and its flaws are legion. Its action scenes are tiresome and overlong, its script is often terrible (“Don’t ever write a check with your mouth you can’t cash with your ass” is currently in the running for the year’s worst line of dialogue), and apologies are owed to The Smiths, The Pixies and Roxy Music for the film’s awful covers.
And yet, the extended version of Sucker Punch makes it far more clear what Snyder was attempting to make here – an anti-comic book fantasy, which attempts to interrogate the way female characters are depicted in modern culture (the irony of the fact that it uses lots of scantily clad ladies to do this shouldn’t be lost on anyone, I’d add).
The film’s title may even be a direct message from Snyder to his audience: in expecting a breezy action movie full of ass-kicking heroines, it’s the viewer’s expectations that have been sucker punched. They receive instead a grim, faintly unsettling experience about victimisation and control.
If this interpretation is correct, Sucker Punch may well be one of the most sly films ever to have made it through the Hollywood filmmaking machine.