Imagine a building where one side is a dark, dreary insane asylum populated by sadistic guards, doctors and attractive female inmates, and the other side is a popular brothel and speakeasy. Sounds like the heart of a b-movie exploitation film and that's what Sucker Punch, the new computer-graphics filled cinematic graphic novel from Zack Snyder, turns out to be.
Unfortunately, the film is also painfully juvenile with a target audience of adolescent boys who define their world as being surrounded by bullies and beautiful, unobtainable girls "in real life", and bad guys, dragons and demons to kill with various cool and hyper-aggressive weapons in their virtual, video-game-fueled lives. It's no surprise that the women in the film are all costumed in fetishistic outfits with plunging necklines, bare midriffs, über-short skirts and long stockings. They're all very sexy but, unsurprisingly, there's no actual sex in the film.
Sucker Punch starts out with a dark, moody sequence where late teen blonde waif Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is trapped in a gothic monstrosity of a house with her scary, leering stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). When she rejects his advances after her mom has passed away, he turns his attentions to her little sister, to which Baby reacts by finding a gun and shooting him. She misfires and her sister ends up killed and his revenge is to have her locked up in the home for the mentally insane.
And that's where it switches from a delightfully creepy horror film into an incoherent genre mashup. Baby Doll meets the other babes in distress that become her posse: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). They're all required to act out erotic plays in the speakeasy then entertain individual customers, through which we realize that all the women in Sucker Punch are victims of sadistic men, and that there are no bad women -- or good men -- in the entire narrative.
Sucker Punch is a mess. The storyline barely makes sense and the constant transitions from fantasy to "reality", era to era, genre to genre, left me asking "WTF?" more than once during the movie. By the end it was just exhausting and while the effects were splendid, the storyline was too weak to sustain it. I can only recommend this for adolescent men who want to see their soft porn mixed with a strong dose of video game visuals and effects.
The fantastic visuals are come from Baby Doll trying to escape the harsh reality of her new existence as a sort of indentured prostitute: she is extolled by the ambiguous Russian psychiatrist/madam Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) that "you create your own reality" and then encounters the Wise Man (Scott Glenn, who was awful in this role) in a strange Last Airbender-inspired Japanese temple that her fevered imagination creates. He explains to her that she needs five things to be able to permanently escape the hell of her existence, and thereby starts the quest.
Even in this first fantasy sequence, however, we're shown that this is going to be a video game wet dream, where 20-foot monster samurai use Gatling guns and rocket launchers to try and defeat her. Every gunshot is lovingly shown, every footstep shakes the theater, and when Baby Doll leaps through the air and kills an enemy mid-leap with her katana sword, she lands in a crouch, sword up, and we can see - and feel - the shock wave of her energy. Subsequent fantasy sequences incorporate her posse of fellow girls, all of whom are similarly dressed in what are best described as skanky Halloween costumes.
Baby Doll (Emily Browning) and her posse in "Sucker Punch"
Subsequent fantasy sequences take place in a sort of stylized World War II trench where the German soldiers have been reanimated by the Nazis and are now steam-punk zombies. Later, the girls fly an armed military chopper to a castle teeming with demons and guarded by an angry dragon. The last fantasy sequence moves to a more futuristic world where, a la Under Siege, Baby Doll and her gang fight through a train of bad guys to disarm a bomb.
The tension in the film is generated by a standard trope: a countdown clock. In this case, we learn at the very beginning -- and in the movie adverts -- that Baby Doll is going to be lobotomized five days after she's been brought to the asylum. There's no clock on the wall, but there are many references throughout the film to how many days are left before "High Roller" (Jon Hamm) comes in to do the job.
Zack Snyder has previously given us some great films. His 300 was critically acclaimed and helped bring back sword-and-sandal films to the cineplex, and I thought his adaptation of the complex Watchmen was excellent. Aggressive, but true to the style of the original work.
Sucker Punch lists him as writer and director and I just have to say that if this is what's floating around in Snyder's psyche, he might well need to get some professional help before he's going to be a happy man. The non-stop sadism of the film, the tawdry sexualization of just about every scene, the fetishistic costumes, and the crass stereotyping of all men as evil, sadistic monsters was exhausting.
I can't recommend this film to anyone, even fans of Snyder's earlier works, unless you're the kind of guy (I can't imagine many women enjoying this visceral slam-bang actioner) who likes their mix of soft porn and video game visuals mixed to the point of incoherence.