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Sucker Punch’s tagline is, “Close your eyes. Open your mind. You will be unprepared.” While it might be a waste of money to watch the film with your eyes closed, you get the drift. Despite the odd wording (wouldn’t “nothing can prepare you” have read better?) Sucker Punch’s PR people want you to believe that this is going to be something you haven’t seen before. This is a bold claim, 120 years into cinematic history.


Sucker Punch is more a pastiche than a narrative film, a homage to comic books, Japanimation, fantasy novels, and old Hollywood. Whether it’s any good or not depends entirely on what you bring to the theater. Pure entertainment? Sure. Will it leave you asking any question besides, “Where did we park the car?” Probably not. However, like zealots debating the authenticity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate Sucker Punch won’t disappoint the Zack Snyder faithful, but like Birthers, there will be no arguing with them.


cover art

Sucker Punch

Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone

(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 25 Mar 2011; 2011)

The movie starts with the death of a mother. She has two daughters, one of which is the film’s heroine, Baby Doll, played by Emily Browning. Browning is a talented Australian actor who in person proves to be intelligent and insightful, but in Sucker Punch she rarely speaks. She and her sister are left to defend themselves against their evil stepfather, who like almost all the males portrayed in the film is cartoonishly evil. As in comic book narratives, no explanation is given for their destructive, black hearts. They are simply evil incarnate. As if to prove this, the stepfather brutally kills her sister after attempting to sexually assault Baby Doll, who barely escapes.


Baby Doll is found by police and committed to an all-girl mental institution by her stepfather who has convinced everyone she was the one who actually killed her sister. He pays off an enterprising but evil male orderly, played by Oscar Isaac, to sign Baby Doll up for an eventual lobotomy. It’s in the institution where the action happens. It’s there that she meets her four co-stars, Abby Cornish, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung and cell phone camera parvenu Vanessa Hudgens.


As a form of therapy the girls are made to act out their demons on a literal stage, overseen by the institution’s psychiatrist, played by Carla Gugino. It’s through Baby Doll’s imagination while she is undertaking this therapy that the rest of the story is told. Until the very end when returned jarringly to reality, the audience is set loose in a kaleidoscopic world of sex-slave brothels, samurai swords, zombie Nazis, fire-breathing dragons, medieval knights, Vietnam War relics, sci-fi robots, and trips to other planets.


In this fantasy world instead of being in a mental institution, Baby Doll is a dancer in a brothel, and each of the other characters has their own dream-world dopelganger. Echoing Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, or the terrible Indian goddess Kali dancing to bring about the end of the world, each of the dances she performs propels her into a battle sequence, where she and her companions must find one of four objects which will facilitate their escape from the asylum.


The film’s director, Zack Snyder, alludes to the dance when he says, “There are two sucker punches in the movie, I think. The first one is that, you know, if you have pre-conceived ideas about what you think the movie is or what the idea is or how movies are put together and all of that, then that is kind of what the sucker punch is all about. Then, on the other hand, I think the literal translation of the title is that there is a device in the movie that acts like a sucker punch, that literally is like a sucker punch if you will, and it propels and it takes the story in a circle.”


Zack Snyder, sitting next to his wife Deborah in a hotel room in Beverly Hills, looks disheveled and tired. He’s been through a lot in the past few months, from controversy over the follow-up to his acclaimed 300 (he won’t be directing it) to reported problems with the upcoming Superman movie’s storyline, which is just two months away from production. His signature 5 o’clock shadow is pushing toward beard status.


Sucker Punch is his first original film, something that he underplays by saying, “I feel the same pressure that I do with anything. Just like like I did with Watchmen, or 300, or any of the movies I’ve made. Once I sort of say, ‘this is the movie I’m making,’ it really becomes personal to me anyway. In some ways I feel more personal about Watchmen than anything else, even more maybe than Sucker Punch, because it’s a thing that I loved for so long.”


Some of his ambivalence may be due to the fact that after the film was finished and submitted to the MPAA problems began to surface. “I made the movie with the intention of it being PG-13. I just had no idea how far you’d have to go to keep it PG-13,” Snyder says. His wife and producer, Deborah Snyder agrees, “It took us five tries.” Zack continues, “So, you know, I don’t know how they could come down that hard on us, but they came down pretty hard on us I think. I was like, I can’t, when we were struggling with it I was like, I can’t have this movie be Rated R. Personally I can’t, because this would be the worst R ever, in history, right? Because it’s R for like leering and weirdness, which is just a bad R. If I went to it and saw it I would say, ‘This is fucking… where is my R rated shit?’


Snyder continues, “Because Debbie can tell you, I can make an R movie if I have to. If I want to make an R rated movie it’s going to be Rated R. You know, I’m like adamant about that. But, in this case, part of the reason we decided to make it PG-13 was that I was afraid that the idea would get lost in the violence, in the sex and violence, because I would’ve just gone for it. It would’ve got pretty frickin’ dark pretty fast. Not to say that it’s not dark now as it is but it would’ve been way worse. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would’ve been like. It would’ve been awesome.”


George Russell is a writer living and working in Los Angeles. His PopMatters essays have appeared in an anthology published by W.W. Norton. He can be reached at russell@popmatters.com.


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