The director of ‘300’ and ‘Watchmen’ has temporarily abandoned comic books as source material, if not inspiration. ‘Sucker Punch’ is based on Snyder’s own concept and written by him and Steve Shibuya, but retains Snyder’s hyper-stylized violence and thoroughly adolescent sense of reality.
The film, vaguely set in the `60s, opens with a long, dialogue-free section in which our 20-year-old heroine Babydoll (Emily Browning) and her younger sister lose their mother. They’re left at the mercy of a cruel stepfather (Gerard Plunkett), who kills the sister and frames it on Babydoll. He quickly hides her away in that most fearsome of hellholes: Brattleboro, Vt.
It’s not a nightmare of quaint B&Bs and art galleries that await Babydoll, but rather a gothic mental hospital where the obviously corrupt chief doctor Blue (Oscar Isaac) presides. He immediately schedules Babydoll for a lobotomy in five days time.
The film then shifts to a layer of unexplained fantasy where the hospital is instead a nightclub. Blue is recast as a pimp, and the inmates as exotic dancers. They aren’t your typical mental hospital crowd, but a harem of burlesque beauties: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung).
By Babydoll’s lead, the girls plot their escape. They must gather a series of items (a map, a knife), each of which they scheme to obtain while Babydoll dances. She is apparently so good that it puts anyone watching in a kind of trance. We never see her moves, but instead shift to yet another layer of fantasy.
Each task is carried out not in the nightclub world, but some other, symbolic realm where a wise man (Scott Glenn) guides them in brutal, absurd tests: a dragon slaying; sword and machine gun combat with stone samurai; and most remarkably, zombie German soldiers in some comic book WWI. (When shot, they hiss and deflate like balloons.)
The question naturally arises: Just what kind of gyrations is Babydoll doing to effect such awe and conjure such imaginary garbage? Is it like Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” dance? Because that was pretty powerful.
No, instead, it’s merely a lazy technique for Snyder to reduce his already exceptionally thin story to its lowest plane. Why shoot for meaningfulness or subtlety when a narrative can — with the lamest of ploys — simply be turned into a bloody video game level?
One feels for the talented actors swept into such hokum. Playing the protective one of the bunch, Cornish is still striking, even having dropped from the shining poetry of “Bright Star” to the near illiteracy of ‘Sucker Punch’. Jon Hamm was also somehow convinced to join, playing a yet stranger figure: a conscientious lobotomy surgeon. That Browning, dressed like a Japanese school girl, fails to command any presence in such a film shouldn’t be held against her.
Snyder packs his movies with heavy, booming scores of mostly covered pop tunes, several of which Browning sings in ‘Sucker Punch’. Annie Lennox, Jefferson Airplane and the Pixies are among those whose songs are revamped as nihilistic marches.
The one thing you can hand to Snyder is his knack for choreography, even when working in a predominantly green-screen produced movie. In heavily manipulate images often slowed down, he will never miss a close-up of a knife in mid air, or a roundhouse kick at impact.
This is the filmmaker who has been entrusted with the next Superman movie? One can only hope he leaves the zombie German soldiers and characters named “Rocket” on Krypton.