Sucker Punch

2011

Warner Bros.

Directed by Zack Snyder

Produced by Deborah Snyder

Screenplay by Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya

Based on a story by Zack Snyder

Zack Snyder has provided me with two of my favorite movie watching experiences of recent years.  “300” which I fell so in love with the first time I saw it, I wanted to marry it and take it home to meet my mother.  And “Watchman” which I thought was a brilliant adaptation of the graphic novel and actually improved upon it in certain areas, particularly the ending.  Upon hearing that his new movie SUCKER PUNCH was based on an original story by Zack Snyder I was really pumped to see it as I could imagine what his extraordinary visual style could do when applied to characters of his own creation.

I should have listened more closely to my friend Jason who upon seeing the trailers opinioned that any movie with trailers that kick-ass couldn’t live up to the promise they were making.  Know what?  Jason was totally correct.  SUCKER PUNCH isn’t as kick-ass as those trailers promised.  But neither is it the complete and total disaster some would have you believe.  At most, it’s an interesting experiment by a still young filmmaker who I think was trying to tell a story too ambitious for his still growing talents.  But we’ll get back to that in a bit, okay?  Right now, the obligatory story synopsis…

Baby Doll’s (Emily Browning) life is about as bad as it can get.  Her mother has died, her sister killed in a tragic accident and her stepfather has had her committed to a mental asylum.  The stepfather has bribed the head orderly Blue Jones (Oscar Isacc) to arraign for Baby Doll to be lobotomized.  This way, he can keep control of the vast fortune left to Baby Doll by her mother and she will unable to tell anybody the true circumstances of the death of Baby Doll’s sister.

To cope with her horrific situation, Baby Doll’s mind creates an elaborate fantasy world where the asylum is now a strip club/brothel where Blue is the owner.  The asylum’s chief therapist Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) is now the madam.  Baby Doll becomes friends with the club’s top dancers; Amber (Jamie Chung) Blondie (Vaneesa Hudgens) Rocket (Jena Malone) and her older sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish).  Baby Doll is informed that in five days she is to be given to ‘The High Roller’ which is paralleled in the real world by The Doctor (Jon Hamm) coming to give her a lobotomy.  Baby Doll plans to use those five days to escape and enlists the aid of the other dancers to do so.  This involves Baby Doll creating yet another fantasy world where she and her friends, guided by The Wise Man (Scott Glenn) have to collect five objects to aid in their escape.

That sounds pretty simple and straightforward, right?  Well, it isn’t.  There’s an added dimension to this in that apparently Baby Doll can mesmerize everybody in a room when she dances.  We never see what the dance is but when she does, she and her friends are transported to the world where they have to gather the objects.  That’s at around the point you’ll probably start scratching your head.  I know I did.

Let’s get the good out of the way: I liked most of the performances.  Scott Glenn looks as if he’s having so much fun I was having fun watching him.  Jon Hamm is only in the movie for a few minutes but he really makes the most of his brief screen time to really bring an added note of horror and pathos to the movie’s bleakest moment.  And Carla Gugino is amazing as always.  Why this woman doesn’t have a bigger career infuriates me to no end.  Jena Malone I really liked in this one.  She’s got an 80’s Meg Ryan vibe going here I found appealing.  Abbie Cornish I don’t recall seeing in anything but I’m going to be looking for more from her.

The best part of the movie?  Undoubtedly the absolutely incredible action sequences where Baby Doll and crew acquire the objects they need.  I especially loved the World War I sequence with automatic weapons, steampunk battle armor, great big honkin’ zepplins porcupined with weapons and clockwork German soldiers.  You see those sequences and you mightily wish that Zack Snyder had built a better story around them.  He’s got an astounding eye for detail that is truly gifted and visually, SUCKER PUNCH is a treat.

The bad?  There was one too many realities to deal with.  Unlike “Inception” which was painstakingly clear about the rules concerning dream worlds, SUCKER PUNCH isn’t.  I took the movie to be an homage to “The Wizard of Oz” more than anything else since it starts off with a very dull gray look to everything but once Baby Doll starts her fantasy in the brothel, the movie switches to vibrant, eye-popping color.

But once I realized that the action sequences were little more than glorified cut scenes from a videogame, I got bored.  Because I knew they weren’t going to last.  And what I wanted to see was a whole movie with these five fightin’ females boppin’ around these incredible worlds kicking every ass in sight.  And I was frustrated because I wasn’t getting it.  I did find it amusing that Baby Doll apparently has learned Jim Kelly’s trick of switching footwear in mid-fight and that kept me active looking for when she would switch from high heels to flats and back.

So should you see SUCKER PUNCH?  See, that’s a tough one for me to call.  Let me put it to you from both sides of my movie persona:

The cheap-ass, misery, grinchy Derrick Ferguson says: even though I’m a Zack Snyder fan,  there were parts where I was bored so if you’re not a fan, I can’t see where you’d want to see this.

On the other hand…

The artistic, compassionate, film nerd Derrick Ferguson says Zack Snyder has given us something interesting that isn’t a remake or a reboot or dragging out some moldy old franchise, slapping a new coat of paint on it and going “Ta-da!”  He’s done his best to give us something original and he’s to be commended for that.  He stretched himself and didn’t play it safe and I respect that.  I’m willing to give him a pass for SUCKER PUNCH because this is only his fifth film and he’s still growing as a filmmaker.  This one got away from him because I don’t believe he’s built up enough directorial muscle to successfully pull off telling a story like this.  If SUCKER PUNCH is a failure it’s an honest one motivated by creativity and a desire to communicate with a unique storytelling style.

109 minutes

Rated PG-13

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4 comments

  1. I loved the movie — my favorite parts were actually the beginning, everything leading up to the first fantasy sequence. The whole thing with Babydoll, the death of her sister and her arrival at the asylum. Brilliant.

  2. Agreed, Derrick. I give Snyder credit and have all the respect for him for trying something new, but this movie is a mess, and instead of using the deeper fantasies to heighten the story, they end up pulling me out of the narrative. They’re awesome as individual sequences but in the context of the movie they don’t add anything to the story. If we knew more about the women, and thus could see the fetish fights as real extensions of their personalities and their situations, then we would’ve had something worth watching besides all the pretty ladies and explosions, but Snyder doesn’t do nearly a good enough job tying in the fantasies with the reality, and so it leaves me impressed with the skill but cold on the story.

    And I just have an uneasy feeling about enjoying these action sequences when they’re being created because Baby Doll has likely manifested this deeper level because back in reality she’s being raped by the clients and watched by Blue, which allows the others the freedom to try and collect the needed objects. Snyder seems to want to have it both ways – he wants the flashy fetish but then wants us to realize they were only created as a defense mechanism for real abuse.

    At each level of fantasy, Baby Doll’s real sacrifice – and the brutal reality of the situation they all face – is diminished in order to elevate idealized sex and violence.

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