With Dawn Of The Dead and 300, Zack Snyder established himself as a skilful director of effects-laden action blockbusters. And after the tepid performance of Watchmen and his family-friendly owl project, Legends Of The Guardians, Snyder brings us his magnum opus, Sucker Punch, a sprawling action fantasy with an ensemble female cast and eye-bulging special effects.Sucker Punch opens with a flurry of high-octane editing, and rarely lets up for two hours. We’re introduced to youthful, blonde heroine Baby Doll (Emily Browning) who accidentally shoots her younger sister while attempting to fend off the advances of her disgusting stepfather.
Packed off to a home for the criminally insane, Baby Doll faces a gloomy fate: a lobotomy and further abuse from the home’s boss, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac).
Like Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, Baby Doll retreats into a fantasy world, in which she’s not a patient in an asylum but a dancer in a bordello. There, she meets fellow dancers Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie and Amber, played by Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung respectively. Oddly, this fantasy world is no better than the grotty one Baby Doll’s left behind, so whenever she’s ordered to humiliate herself by performing, she retreats, Inception-like, into another layer of fantasy.
It’s this second set of fantasy worlds that we’ve seen so much of in Sucker Punch’s trailers, with their giant robots, exotic gun fights and slow-motion wire-fu sequences that drip with CG augmentation.
In each fantasy, Baby Doll meets Wise Man (Scott Glenn), who acts as her mentor and quartermaster, telling her where she needs to go next and handing her a weapon or two while he does it.
It’s here that director Zack Snyder lets his imagination – and effects department – run riot; there are colossal sword-wielding samurai warriors, Lancaster Bombers soaring over what looks like Mount Doom, and steam-powered zombie WWI soldiers that resemble the Helghast out of the Killzone games.
I won’t describe the plot in much greater detail, not because I’m afraid of spoiling it, but because it’s all a bit muddled and inconsequential. Sucker Punch’s characters have no life or personality beyond their haircuts – there’s the sassy one with the short hair, the strong one with the long hair, a dark-haired one who appears to have a pilot’s license, another one I can’t remember a thing about, and finally Baby Girl herself, who’s difficult to care for simply because we know nothing about her.
It’s established early on in the film that the girls need to work together in order to escape the bordello, and by extension the lunatic asylum, and that to do so they’ll need to acquire four items. The acquisition of each of these items invariably triggers another fantasy action sequence, each cut to a frighteningly loud cover of an ageing rock song. Like last year’s Resident Evil: Afterlife, these scenes consist of endless slow-motion pirouettes, back-flips and fancy gunplay, a dizzying carnival of 12A-friendly violence.
There are so many projectiles, blades and fists swooping in and out of the frame in these sequences, in fact, that I suspect that Sucker Punch was once intended to be presented in 3D, as both Resident Evil: Afterlife and Snyder’s own Legend Of The Guardians both were.
It’s also apparent that Sucker Punch was intended to be somewhat more violent and sweary than the version that’s belly-flopped into cinemas; there’s more than one instance where it’s evident that the film’s language has been toned down, and one scene features a pregnant pause where I presume an abusive sentence would have been.
Despite some snips for a 12A certificate, it’s mildly surprising just how relentlessly violent and grim you can make a film if you couch it in a fantasy setting. Leaving aside the incalculable bodycount – which always involves masked drones of one sort or another – the subtext of Sucker Punch is more than a little disquieting.
While at its core an eye-pleasing popcorn movie, its themes are all centred around mental illness, trauma and abuse of one sort or another. I’m also slightly bewildered by a film that asks us to boo at an abusive father, but then forces the viewer into the role of leering voyeur.
All of this will more than likely pass viewers by if they’re willing to simply sit back and imbibe the film as a piece of mindless escapism, in which a quintet of sexy chicks cause mayhem across a fantastical landscape while looking airbrushed and coquettish in the process.
And yet, in spite of the obvious skill of Zack Snyder as a director of eye candy, Sucker Punch fails to satisfy even as a mindless, big-budget action movie. In making the film so stylised and noisy from the opening frame, Snyder doesn’t allow himself the time or space to establish any physical ground rules before embarking on his fantastical journey.
Bereft of structure or logic, Sucker Punch simply hurtles from one outlandish scenario to the next, with the more prosaic scenes back at the bordello providing the scanty thread that ties them all together. Worse still, after almost two hours of relentless, noisy action, Sucker Punch has the temerity to end on a pretentious note rather than an unapologetically bombastic one.
In its brightest moments, you can perhaps admire Snyder’s ability to bring so much exotic action to the screen, but even these moments are undermined by the film’s faintly sleezy, even misogynistic undercurrents – for all the ass-kicking that Emily Browning and her friends get to mete out, they’re subjected at all times to a lingering male gaze. This could slip by unnoticed, perhaps, if Sucker Punch’s sexy action sequences didn’t nestle alongside scenes of cruelty and humiliation. The two mixed together make for uncomfortable viewing.
Sucker Punch, then, is a genuine oddity – an action fantasy with adult themes, but adolescent preoccupations. Zack Snyder may have intended to make an exciting movie about female empowerment, but that message appears to have gotten lost somewhere in the edit. Maybe it’s lying on a cutting room floor somewhere, along with snipped out swear words and gore.
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