Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carlo Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn
(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 25 Mar 2011; 2011)
Zack Snyder’s latest fanboy valentine is more like a light, tapping slap than a sucker punch, if you must know. It tells us many things, none of them necessary. We learn that there are many potentially cool ways to mix up World War I battlefields, dragon-lurked fantasy castles, samurai, and out-of-control-trains, if all you’ve really got to worry about is special effects. Actresses in thigh-high stockings, miniskirts, pigtails, and midriff tops sporting high-end assault rifles will make for a killer poster. When an asylum feels compelled to double-advertise itself as being for the “mentally insane” (as opposed to what, the physically insane?), you can be assured that your stay there will not be pleasant. Scott Glenn does not have an inside voice.
Too bad that Snyder and his co-writer Steve Shibuya felt the need to pack all of these lessons into a sort of naughty-magazine fairy tale with a moral slapped on at the end. One would imagine that the filmmaker could have been perfectly happy with being known as that guy who had Vanessa High School Musical Hudgens taking out zombie Huns with a mean-looking axe (yes!) and manning a .50-cal machine gun in a World War II-era bomber being pursued by an angry dragon. All in all, that’s a pretty impressive thing to stick on one’s resume. And truth be told, if Snyder and Shibuya hadn’t tried to wrap it all up into something vaguely sensical, the nonstop lunacy of it all would likely have grown tiring.
But, still. From the opening scenes of Sucker Punch, it’s clear that this is not going to be different enough from any other Snyder confection for it to have any kind of real pulp integrity. A swoony, wordless sequence presents our fair heroine, Babydoll (the clear-eyed and purposeful but still affectless Emily Browning), being tormented by an evil stepfather, who ultimately institutionalizes her. It’s nothing but slow-motion on top of slow-motion, like much of the rest of what follows. (If Snyder ever shot a film in nothing but normal speed, it might run only twenty minutes long.) The look, from Babydoll’s tortured home life to the gothic asylum where she’s imprisoned, is bush-league music-video, circa 1993, as though David Fincher had never graduated from the darting flashlights and extreme close-ups of his Janie’s Got a Gun days. Even before the film drops down the rabbit hole into Babydoll’s mind, it’s kitsch slathered on top of kitsch, overindulgent in ways that makes the design of Burlesque look positively tasteful.
The heart of the matter, what all those storyboards and special-effects artists were used for, is what happens once Babydoll realizes she has five days until a doctor is scheduled to come and perform a lobotomy on her with implements that look straight out of the nineteen century. (The time frame is fuzzy, with outfits and appliances grab-bagged in from all over the place, giving Snyder’s set designers a maximum flexibility and leaving his story in a this-isn’t-real zone that deprives it of any real emotional resonance.) Babydoll discovers that the asylum is actually a front for an exotic-dance club where the unusually-attractive group of female inmates perform for a high-paying, likely criminal clientele. This is all done under the tutelage of a highly campy Carla Gugino, sporting a supposedly Polish accent (“Eef you dohn’t danze, you hef no purpose…”) and some outfits that Sally Bowles would have maimed for.
Figuring she doesn’t want to hang around for the old icepick-to-the-skull (apparently the best way to perform a lobotomy), Babydoll puts together an escape plan that involves working with some of the dancers, saddled with names like Rocket, Amber, and Sweet Pea. In the film’s conceit, every one of the girls’ schemes involves Babydoll putting on a mesmerizing, distracting dance for the men, which viewers never see because during that supposed dance, inside Babydoll’s head, she and the girls are waging highly symbolic video-game war, with help from a wizened, craggy-faced master of whatever (Glenn).
The mix of schoolgirl outfits, high-tech weaponry, and gravity-defying fighting abilities suggest the Pussycat Dolls trained by the Powerpuff Girls and Delta Force. Their opponents, meanwhile, are a grab-bag of Comic-Con, Heavy Metal-style villainy, from 15-foot-tall monster samurai to the afore-mentioned World War I German zombie soldiers and Tolkien-esque orcs, all of whom are dispatched with a minimum of PG-13 fuss. This is all meant to be highly symbolic and empowering.
Fun for a time in its middle stretches, the film achieves for a time a kind of lift-off that more heavily burdened and laughably overwrought exercises in excess like 300 and Watchmen never did. This is aided by a surprisingly vivid supporting cast, particularly a spiky Abbie Cornish as the sort of elder sister of Babydoll’s ragtag band of warrior vixens, and Oscar Isaac, playing their imprisoner as an oily snake-charmer; both of them (along with Gugino) are slumming but they don’t let it show.
But before long, Snyder returns to his point and the film plummets to earth. If the filmmakers hadn’t spent so much time earlier on ensuring that the audience had severed every last claim they had on thinking the film resided in any recognizable physical or emotional reality, then it might have had some staying power once it left the gatling gun-armed giant samurai behind. As it stands, the film is a messy and only fitfully escapist blender of overwrought music interludes and fetish manga styling.
It will be very big in Japan.