When I was a kid I drew my own comic books, based largely on existing characters, mostly GI Joe, Punisher, Batman, etc. I was enthralled by comics (and still am), the visual style, the action, the otherworldly environments. It was the most amazing escape and a truly inspirational outlet for me. Filled to the capacity with this inspiration, I began to make my own comics, usually pieced together in the space of one or two evenings, hastily put together so that I could get to the “good” parts: the fights, the explosions, the bloody violence. All of my “stories” were one, unending climax. There was no narrative structure, no character arc, and no semblance of suspense or story-building. No, there were only guys beating the shit out of each other, shooting each other, and usually an explosion or two, ripped off from some movie I had recently seen.
Such is the nature of the pre-teen mind, inexperienced in life and quick to the “good stuff” without paying any attention to the journey that gets you there. For the short attention-spanned teen, the cake is the most important thing. They just want the sweet, tasty deliciousness; they don’t give a shit where it comes from. They want no part in finding the ingredients, mixing them, putting them together just right, and baking them to completion. Just give them the fucking cake already.
Watching “Sucker Punch” I felt like I was that teenager again, devoid of life experience, seeking the “quick fix” entertainment I reveled in at that age. However, I’m almost twice that age now and my appetite is now for the substance, more so than the style. While I appreciate the slick visual punch of a bad ass style, it’s not worth a damn if there’s no structure to hold it up. “Sucker Punch” is a house of cards. Shiny, hologram laden cards, ready to tumble at the slightest breath of air. And it’s stuck in a hurricane.
It’s a pre-teen nightmare, complete with philosophical rumblings torn right out of a thirteen year-old-girl’s freshman year Biology notebook that she scribbles in the margins of, while working a four-hour shift at Hot Topic.
If that sounds like stereotyping, then you’ve just described “Sucker Punch” at its worst. It’s a visual stereotype of the anime female archetype: short skirt, thigh-highs, high heels, swords, guns, and combat training galore. As a creative individual I am able to suspend disbelief to the highest plains, but even I reach a point that I can no longer breathe or see straight. “Sucker Punch” strangles me with over-the-top visuals and suffocates me with the lack of a true, narrative structure. The sixteen-year-old me would have fucking adored this movie. Thank God he no longer exists.
Writer/Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, that fucking Owl movie) is a modern stylist filmmaker who has made a career out of his visceral, head-spinning style and I commend him for it. I love “300” and appreciate “Watchmen” to a high degree. Snyder puts it all out there, which has served him well up until “Sucker Punch.” So, what went wrong? Uh, well, it’s quite simple really: Zack Snyder is an awesome director and a shitty writer. “300” and “Watchmen” were both written by two of the most prominent and influential comic book writers of the past thirty years. The source material did all the work for him. All he had to do was make it look pretty, which he did, and then some.
That’s not to call Snyder a one-trick pony. I think he has got talent to spare, just not in the narrative department. That can easily be helped by a good screenwriter. Thankfully he has David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight, Blade) at the writing table for the upcoming “Superman: Man of Steel.” No matter how disappointing “Sucker Punch” was, I have more confidence in Superman since he’s not writing it. If there was ever a project that needed a massive injection of hyperbole, it’s Superman. Snyder is absolutely the right man for that job.
“Sucker Punch” is like the reward for the work Snyder has done thus far. He must have sold the project to the studio in the same way he directs; fast, furious, and in-your-face. How could they refuse him the check? Snyder went away and made the film he absolutely wanted to make, which is a page torn out of the teenage fantasy notebook; hot chicks, guns, swords, robots, samurai, airplanes, explosions, Nazis, dragons, all vomited onto the screen and sped up, slowed down, amped up, and dumbed down for all to see and attempt to make sense of.
However, it’s not a total loss. The action is there. It’s cool and fun and undeniably exciting. Snyder is up to all his usual tricks and it’s a pleasure to see. The cast is quite good considering the wretched, snooze-fest of dialogue they’re given to deliver. They cry, scream, and kick serious ass throughout. And yes, they certainly look hot doing so. As for story? Emily Browning plays Baby Doll, the main protagonist, who is sent to a mental hospital after accidentally killing her sister, while trying to kill her evil Stepfather, who is angry at the girls after his deceased wife left all of her assets to the girls in her will. Get all that?
Browning arrives at the mental hospital and the evil stepfather pays the warden, played by Oscar Isaac (recently as King John in “Robin Hood”), to have her lobotomized. However, the lobotomy doctor is not set to arrive for five days, giving Baby Doll some time to figure out an escape. Simple enough, right? Well, then we are introduced to Carla Gugino as a Polish doctor who plays music for the girls and has them dance their cares away (although we never actually see them dance) and escape into their own minds.
What? I didn’t make this shit up.
Here’s where the film gets into WTF territory. Nothing is truly established. If the audience can’t make sense of what’s real and what isn’t, then the actions in either reality are lessened. The problem is that Snyder doesn’t take the time to convince the audience of anything; he just assumes we’re all along for the ride. That’s the biggest mistake anyone can make when telling a story. The how and why of a story are what makes the action of the story interesting. The action itself is just a result. For “Sucker Punch”, the action is the story and it’s not good enough. It’s cool, sure, but it doesn’t take the place of motivation and character development.
There are four main action sequences that are built around securing an item in the “real” world, which is meant to aid in their escape. However, the “real” world is just another fantasy world. Sound confusing? It is, but once you figure it out it’s just annoying. The girls are in a mental hospital, the typical run-down looking place you’d expect, although it never lingers that way for long, because it then jumps into a cathouse style décor and is portrayed as a brothel. Then, to further confuse, when Baby Doll does her little dance, she goes into a trance and is suddenly placed in these fictional environments that are made up of every action/fantasy movie you’ve ever seen. It’s much like the “dream-within-a-dream” concept in “Inception,” although nowhere near that level of brilliance.
Scott Glen pops up throughout each fantasy setting as a sage-like guide, laying out the mission and parameters for each scenario, much like a video game objective. Glen has little to offer other than presence as he’s still shouldered with Snyder’s cringe-worthy dialogue. The only actor to outshine their dialogue in “Sucker Punch” is Oscar Isaac, who is convincingly evil and menacing as the warden, even with the trudged over script as his guide. Jena Malone, as Rocket, is the most notable of the girls, easily chumping Emily Browning’s two-note expressions of sad and/or dreamy. Malone has spirit and character, something that is missing from all the other females in the film. It takes more than fake tears to make a great performance, ladies.
While each action sequence holds a sense of excitement and eye candy, the resulting events after each don’t hold up the emotional punch that is needed to make you give a shit about anyone or anything within the film. Yeah, you may want the girls to escape, but you know so little about them that you don’t have any idea what they’re escaping to. We learn absolutely nothing about any of them. When one of the characters is killed the only thing she has to say is “Tell my mom I love her.” In many ways, Sucker Punch is an insult to the credibility and sensibility of a modern day teenager. It basically says they are dreamers who can live the anime dream without any depth or soul, but still look like sexy, bad ass chicks in doing so. It’s shallow and boring.
The actual climax of the film is devoid of any kind of fantasy action element, which is where it was sorely needed. Instead, we are treated to a nonsensical voice-over that leads us off into the sunset, expecting us to take the bait and follow the bullshit into the rolling credits. It was too little, way too late.
I’m sure there are plenty of people who will enjoy “Sucker Punch” for its visual flair, booming soundtrack, and over-the-top action and that will be enough for them. It taps directly into the pop culture vein of teenage fantasy for sure, but it still misses the pulse and heartbeat of story, and for me that’s a deal breaker. Creating a fantasy world doesn’t mean you don’t have to have cohesiveness. In fact, a fantasy world demands it.
“Sucker Punch” is, like so many other films: junk food for the brain, ordered at a late night drive through, devoured without thought or care, and easily forgotten. It’s the very picture of an underdeveloped palette, a healthy serving of id, devoid of depth or structure. And as cool as it wants to be, it never earns that coolness. If you are itching to let your pre-teen self out of the box for a bit, then go ahead and take the hit. If you’re looking to stimulate the current state of yourself, then make sure you duck and avoid this sucker punch.