Zack Snyder. He’s the director of the acclaimed movie adaptation of comic books 300 and Watchmen. With those two movies he showed through his own unique style–adhering to Frank Miller’s panel work for 300, amplifying Dave Gibbon’s powerful images in his Watchmen–that he knows how to make comic book movies. So how could he have fallen so flat with Man of Steel (reviewed previously here at borg.com)? Snyder makes big movies but you can’t depend on his name to know what you’re going to get when you plop down the price of a ticket. When you hear about a movie advertised as Sucker Punch was, it’s easy to skip over it especially because he both wrote and directed the movie. Released in 2011, Sucker Punch is now available On Demand. Is it worth checking out?
Sucker Punch was only marketed as a movie featuring ass-kicking female characters in video game situations. Yet the story is grounded in some serious issues. It follows two tracks: first, a young woman only referred to as Baby Doll (played by Emily Browning) being abused by her step-father is sent to an “insane asylum,” and second, that woman enters into a fantasy world to survive and avoid being lobotomized by the doctor on staff (played by Mad Men’s Jon Hamm). If you give Snyder the benefit of the doubt, you can buy into the fantasy word elements. Baby Doll’s fantasy world consists of the stuff of David Carradine’s Kung Fu series, first person video games, and even The Lord of the Rings. Led by her own inner mentor, played superbly by Scott Glenn (Silverado, The Right Stuff, Backdraft), Baby Doll takes a team of four inmates–real-world accomplices–on Dungeons & Dragons type missions to capture key totems that Glenn’s character advises will help her break out of the asylum in the real world. In one scene they pilot a World War II B-25 plane, in another they attempt to slay a dragon, and another they are battling robot drones. And it all is woven with classic rock and pop songs.
A powerhouse performance can be found with Jena Malone (Donnie Darko, Into the Wild) as Rocket, the most complex of the inmates, as well as Abbie Cornish (RoboCop), who plays her sister and fellow inmate Sweet Pea. These two characters pretty much equal the military badass male action scenes of films like Alien and Predator. If Snyder had stuck to making a purely fantasy movie, he would have knocked this one out of the park with these actresses and his supernatural world. But his major miss is the real world depicted in Sucker Punch.
Snyder’s efforts at moving between realities fall flat. The viewer is never quite sure what is happening. The women are forced exotic dancers, yet whenever Baby Doll is supposed to dance we only can guess what she did. The real world scenes aren’t grounded in any reality. Is this the 1940s or 1950s or 1970s? The fantasy scenes bounce around and include even a steampunk type world. Yet the real world depicted could hardly be more disturbing, and viewers are left to question whether this show is objectifying women. Out of nowhere the inmates are prostitutes led by a sleazy warden, played by Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Oscar Isaac in what must be one of the worst roles ever. Isaac gives it all he has, but the character is poorly crafted.
Carla Gugino, who starred in Snyder’s Watchmen, plays a European-accented psychiatrist. Her role is a puzzler–we don’t quite know what her game is, to help the patients or exploit them at the behest of the males in charge. Is this one of those male fetish fantasy stories blasted by Fredric Wertham in the 1950s? In the real world the women wear short skirts and fishnets–Baby Doll as some kind of sexed-up little girl from a Brittney Spears video. The women only seem to take control, but never have it. The men always win. There is no morality tale here. And the big real world reveal is no more than a retread of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The reason for the title “Sucker Punch” is never revealed, and begs critics to reply that the viewer is left as the sucker for paying the admission price.
Is Sucker Punch worth seeing? Yes, Snyder’s fantasy world scenes are great fun, even if viewers must strain (or maybe close one eye) to get past the serious issues glossed over here, how trivialized they become despite the strength and power put forward by Malone, Cornish, Browning, and two other inmates, played by Vanessa Hudgens (Machete Kills) and Jamie Chung (Once Upon a Time, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Veronica Mars). Sucker Punch is far better than Snyder’s Man of Steel, and Malone’s and Glenn’s performances alone are worth giving it a try. Watch it to see how a squad of women on a mission out of The Guns of Navarone can look just as cool and tough as the best male team-up you’ve seen, and to remind yourself to be suspect of Snyder’s next offering.
Sucker Punch is now On Demand through FXM.