Review: Sucker Punch (2011)

Sucker Punch


Zack Snyder
Zack Snyder, Steve Shibuya
110 min.
Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn, Richard Cetrone, Gerard Plunkett
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for thematic material involving sexuality, violence and combat sequences, and for language

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A young girl’s fantasy of escape leads her and four friends through epic imagined adventures to find five treasures that will set them all free in Zach Snyder’s original feature Sucker Punch.

Baby Doll (Emily Browning)’s mother has just died and when her stepfather attempts to rape her younger sister, she tries to kill him but accidentally ends her sister’s life. Sent to a maximum security mental institution, Baby Doll wants nothing more than to escape the place, but finds that she’ll need to uncover her inner resolve to succeed. Joining her on the journey are another pair of sisters, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone), who came to the institution after having run away from home. Two other inmates, Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) are in on the action. They must outwit the institution’s head orderly Blue (Oscar Isaac) before the Doctor (Jon Hamm) arrives in five days to labotomize Baby Doll, considered a danger by her stepfather. Rounding out the film’s roster are Scott Glenn as a wiseman who visits Baby Doll in her imagination to give her advice; and acting as mentor for the patients, but never providing any real emotional stimulus, the sanitarium’s experimental psychologist Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino).

Sucker Punch is an attempt to invade Baby Doll’s psychological history in order to advance its narrative. Shortly after Baby Doll arrives at the sanitarium, we skip ahead to a scene in the Doctor’s office where Baby Doll immediately flashes back in time and in her imagination to her first introduction to the girls in the asylum. Most of the film takes place in this first layer of escapist imagination where she and the others are whores in a sleazy nightclub where they dance for the pleasure of the audience while feeling like prisoners backstage. Here, Blue is the nightclub/whorehouse manager and Dr. Gorski is the dance instructor. Shortly after arriving, Baby Doll is forced to dance for Blue and his two guards while the rest of the girls watch. This is results in her first foray into the dream reality her imagination concocts to help her put together small pieces of her tour of the facility to form a plan of escape. Glenn’s Wise Man is here as a martial arts sensei who gives her a katana and a pistol with which she must defeat three gargantuan samurai. This is our first introduction to the heavily stylized world director Snyder employed in his prior two live action films 300 and Watchmen.

His penchant for slow takes and narrow misses is put on immediate display and then repeated in each of three other visions, the trenches of World War II with Nazi zombies and war machines, a medieval castle with warplanes and fire-breathing dragons, and a futuristic bullet train carrying a bomb to a major metropolitan area. Each of which would have been entirely interchangeable were it not for their radically different environments, though all-too-similar color schemes.

Zach Snyder’s flaw has always been directing a narrative. His films are visual candy stores. They are gorgeous art pieces that lack a palpable emotional core. You can’t take your eyes off the screen for a minute in fear of missing some lovely image, but your brain shuts off half way through when it realizes it’s going to be starved for a compelling story. Snyder tries hard to give the audience a feeling of some deeper meaning, but with performances that feel as hollow as an empty shotgun shell, it’s hard to convey more than a compulsory tale. The first thirty minutes of the film held great promise and had Snyder’s inner teenager not gone haywire in the adventure visions, it might have given him time to develop his characters more and give the audience a real measure of personal involvement, not a superficial one. Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish are the only actress that come out completely unscathed. Both have a great deal of experience with more serious efforts and utilize that to create believable characters. Malone is the anchor of the film, but Cornish stands firmly by her side.

Carla Gugino and Jon Hamm escape mostly unharmed with characters that don’t feel as stereotyped as they could have been, especially Gugino’s strict matron. Dr. Gorski elicits a touch of humanity in few late scenes in the film but has a difficult time when paired with Oscar Isaac’s devilish portrayal not seeming two-dimensional. Isaac does what he is expected to do, which is create a lecherous villain the likes of which have been seen countless times. He dips frequently into an overzealous frenzy that fits fine within the confines of a Zack Snyder creation, but lacks real credibility. Scott Glenn and Jamie Chung give inattentive performances, though this is forgivable from someone with as short a resume as Chung, but from Glenn I expect better. Then there’s Disney celebutant Vanessa Hudgens who is so deplorably bad in her few scenes with her vacant eyes and faux tears that the film merits a half-star demerit because of it.

Like his previous films, Snyder has proven an incomparable stylist. But has not proven his ability to move beyond that style to a realm of substance. One of Sucker Punch’s deepest flaws is a lack of stability. There’s never a chance for the audience to form more than perfunctory bond with the characters, it jumps from one scene to another without any cohesion. Having a series of goals to accomplish is not the same as a through line. Were Snyder less absorbed in the creation of visual flair and focused more on a suitable and credible story, he might have the potential to create something great. Even the great visual stylists like Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino required exceptional story foundations to make their films succeed. Snyder has refined one element of filmmaking, now he needs to focus on the rest. I’d rather see Snyder become another Tarantino and not another Michael Bay.
Review Written
March 28, 2011

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