A film review by Craig J. Koban March 30, 2011


2011, PG-13, 110 mins.

Emily Browning: Babydoll / Abbie Cornish: Sweet Pea / Jena Malone: Rocket / Vanessa Hudgens: Blondie / Jamie Chung: Amber / Oscar Isaac: Blue / Carla Gugino: Madam Gorski / Scott Glenn: Wise Man / Jon Hamm: High Roller

Directed by Zack Snyder / Written by Snyder and Steve Shibuya

It seems that every critic under the sun has been labeling Zack Snyderís fourth film, SUCKER PUNCH, as an unmitigated and disastrous mess.  Some have even gone as far as to call it the LAST AIRBENDER of 2011.  That latter moniker is gross hyperbole at best.  SUCKER PUNCH may indeed be an unmanageable and self-indulgent mess for Snyder (he conceived the filmís story), but itís as aesthetically arresting of a cinematic mess as Iíve ever seen.   Snyder has always been an exceptional director of a visual front, and SUCKER PUNCH indeed lets his ambitious imagination run free with reckless abandon on the silver screen.  Yes, the film is somewhat of a failure, but thereís simply too much talent on display here to brand it as a arduous time waster, not to mention that comparisons to M. Night Shyamalanís tortuous disaster from last year are foolishly short-sighted at best. 

Snyder, if anything, may lack restraint in his films, but thatís precisely what his previous efforts required.  Reticent filmmakers could have never gathered up the nerve to successfully remake one of the most hallowed horror films of all time in 2004ís DAWN OF THE DEAD, not to mention that it took balls the size of Dr. Manhattan to helm one of the riskiest, most complex, and most potentially polarizing comic book adaptations ever in 2009ís WATCHMEN.  Hell, even Snyderís blood and gore-drenched period epic 3OO displayed his prodigious talents for faithfully appropriating Frank Millerís splattergorium, swords and sandals graphic novel.   It takes singular endowment to handle these kinds of films with just the right gutsy panache. 

SUCKER PUNCH just may be Snyderís most audaciously realized audio/visual nirvana yet.  The film, if anything, is a masterstroke of employing cutting edge technological innovation and filmmaking wizardry to fully realize the boundless sense of imagination that just pours out of every inch of the screen.  I find it difficult to lambaste any film that throws caution to the wind and goes for it; just consider what we are shown here: giant snakes, mankind hating cyborgs, machine gun-wielding demonized samurai, salivating orcs and dragons, combat against steampunk Nazi zombies in a pseudo-WWI hellscape, and, yes, hot babes in bondage attire sporting ample physical assets while brandishing enough firepower to fetishistically shoot their way out of anything.  SUCKER PUNCH is a materialized adolescent male pornographic fantasy come to life, but it never hides behind that notion. 

The opening scene of the film is arguably is finest, all presented with virtually no dialogue and set against a haunting backdrop of eerie and gothic scenery and a masterful juxtaposition of imagery to tell a story of family tragedy in just a few scant minutes.  A young woman know later as Baby Doll (Emily Browning, whose rosy cheeked complexion, intoxicatingly beautiful eyes, and porcelain loveliness makes her a perfect physical embodiment of her role) comes to grips with her motherís death, but her new guardian seems to relish at the notion of getting a large inheritance in the will.  When he doesnít he goes on a frustrated and mad spree and murders Baby Dollís sister, but she is later accused of the murder and is sent to Lennox House, an insane asylum.  Since this is the 1960ís, it becomes glaringly clear that this asylumís methods of rehabilitation are anything but noble minded and just. 

Baby Dollís future appears grisly, to say the least: she has to fend of the lecherous Blue (oozing contemptuousness by Oscar Isaac), who has made a sickening deal with her stepfather to forge a doctorís signature to approve lobotomizing her within five days in exchange for a large bribe.  Baby Doll is befriended by Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino, having a ball vamping it up to enjoyable effect) a doctor and dance instructor that teaches her girls how to deal with their current predicament by commanding and taking control of their imaginations.  During Baby Dollís first ďsessionĒ she transports herself into the world of her imagination, an alternate reality where she is now an orphan sold to a 1950ís brothel where her and the other incarcerated ladies perform for wealthy clients.  Itís here where Baby Doll hooks up with three other dancer/whores that she will become close allies with: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister, Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens, a far, far cry from HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL) and Amber (Jamie Chung). 

As Madam G tries to get baby Doll to dance for a high ranked client, she cognitively transports herself to a new faux reality within the faux reality, this time she is now in a Japanese dojo where she meets an old man (Scott Glenn) who offers her a chance to secure her freedom.  He gives her weapons (a katana and a handgun) and instructs her to collect five objects: a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a mysterious fifth object that will only come to her when she is ready.  When Baby Doll returns to her previous dreamed reality, she pleads with her new friends to join her on her quest, which they do, albeit begrudgingly.  From this point onward, the girls morph in and out of Baby Dollís pseudo-realities to secure the items required that, in turn, will allow them to become freeÖbut only before the so-called High Roller comes to make mince-meat out of Baby Dollís brain. 

SUCKER PUNCH is a hyperactively offbeat and deviously conceived hodgepodge of films as far ranging as MOULIN ROGUE (in the opening title cards alone), INCEPTION, GIRL, INTERRUPTED, KILL BILL, SHOWGIRLS, and any martial arts-infused anime flick of your choice.  The fantasies within fantasies that all occur within Baby Bollís mind are essentially the selling points of SUCKER PUNCH, and they all are steeped in sumptuously mounted production design, exemplary and lively CGI-artifice, and balls-to-the-wall action intrigue.  The creativity here is splendidly energized, meticulously stylized, and exhilarating.  I liked the excursion the woman had to the nightmarish trenches of a re-imagined Great War battlefield where Germans have been reduced to steam and clock powered robotic ghouls.  Then there is an exciting fantasy sequence Ė echoing THE LORD OF THE RINGS in spades Ė where Baby Doll and her companions mush slay a young dragon without waking up its mother, which they fail miserably at.  When the mother appears and unleashes her monster might on the woman, they fight her off in WWII-era bombers.  Then there is the sci-fi fantasy dream state where the girls must stop a ticking bomb on a train from reaching a futuristic city on a planet that looks like a colonized moon outside of Saturn.  All of these sequences Ė albeit seemingly disconnected and increasingly abstract Ė are all wonderfully absorbing and bizarrely provocative romps through Snyderís hellish bullets 'n broads version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND

The production values on SUCKER PUNCH are on bravura display and really pop (especially without the need for the  eye-gouging obtrusiveness of a 3D upconversion; thanks, Zack!).  Yet, as involved as I was in the visual texture and dynamism of the film, SUCKER PUNCH is negligible on an emotional and dramatic front.  The script itself (from Snyder and Steve Shibuya) is fiercely ambitious, but lacks proper embellishment and development.  Baby Dollís entourage of tough talking and bad- assed female warriors are performed well but the actresses, but as characters they are poorly established, being only typified by their sultry outfits and their preferred method of killing.  Emily Browning, a luminous and capable actress, is woefully bland and one-note as Baby Doll.  Her eyes and lips do most of the performing, which leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to an actual persona vying for attention.  I certainly liked ogling at all of these women, but the script rarely made me care for them.  Itís funny, but for all of the filmís pontificating on being about female empowerment and girl power, SUCKER PUNCH indulges us more on a salacious level viewing the females on display as objects to lust over.  Hmmmm...I donít think you can have it both ways. 

Yeah, the film has other faults, like an ear-splittingly punishing hard rock score that uses cover songs and haphazardly jumbled up tunes; perhaps Snyderís intention here was to comment on the maddening extremes of his filmís schizophrenic vision, but it more or less has the unintended side-effect of exhausting the viewer into a numbing sense of anxiety.  Then there is the wimpy PG-13 rating of the film, which considering Snyderís headfirst and unapologetic bravado heís displayed in the past, seems like a desperately safe ploy for mass marketed consumption.  SUCKER PUNCH, dare I say this, needs far more exploitative nudity, violence, sex, and overall crassness to match the inherent lewdness of the story.  In the end, Snyderís film is more imperfect, overlong, undisciplined, and convoluted than it is a calamitously awful misfire of epic proportions worthy of multiple Razzie nominations.  There are components that I greatly admired in SUCKER PUNCH; itís just that the bowl they were mixed in lacked other integral ingredients to make it a successful whole.

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