Well, well, well, it seems like it’s time for audiences and critics to take Zack Snyder down from his lofty position, perched atop some great success. That’s the only explanation I can think of for just how swiftly the knives came out in dealing with his latest movie, Sucker Punch. Oh, it’s certainly not for everyone but the sheer number of damning reviews and gloating people rubbing their hands in glee was a surprise to me.
Sucker Punch is a stylish, visually stunning action fantasy that works on a number of different levels and, indeed, depicts it’s events within a number of different worlds. Let me try to sketch things out.
We start with a stage and move towards that stage, approaching Baby Doll (Emily Browning). Baby Doll is stuck in a household overshadowed by despair and abuse and, after things build up to a major tragedy, only gets away when she is taken by her stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) to an insane asylum. To ensure that Baby Doll does not talk to the police, the stepfather pays a large sum of cash to a man who will ensure that she is lobotomised in five days. Time passes and a ripple changes the people and building around Baby Doll. She has now just been handed over to the owner of a brothel, Blue (Oscar Isaac). Baby Doll has a number of days until the high roller is due and she will be handed over to him. She is encouraged to dance by Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) because dancing girls are useful girls. While dancing, Baby Doll can mesmerise those around her and she also escapes into a deeper fantasy world, one in which she meets a wise man (Scott Glenn) and gains weapons, strength and skills. In this deeper fantasy world she is told that she needs five items to escape her fate (a map, fire, a knife, a key and some other mystery element that only she will know about when the time is right). Back at the brothel, Baby Doll reveals her plan to the others (Sweet Pea – Abbie Cornish, her sister, Rocket – Jena Malone, Amber – Jamie Chung, Blondie – Vanessa Hudgens) and eventually convinces them to help her get the items needed while she dances. Each dance leads to a different fantasy scenario, now featuring all of the girls kitted out and ready to kick ass. It’s not going to be easy and lives are at stake.
Now on to what the movie does well.
It should come as no surprise, considering Snyder’s past movies, that Sucker Punch is visually stunning most of the time and that it also makes the most of an excellent soundtrack.
The cast and performances are all very good. Yes, people may have complained about the performances and/or dialogue but these were all portrayals of very stylised characters, basically cyphers anyway, so I thought everything was fine there. Abbie Cornish is the best thing onscreen but Jena Malone is as good as ever and Emily Browning is fine. Jamie Chung doesn’t get as much to do but does it all well while Vanessa Hudgens is the weakest link in the chain. Carla Gugino is stuck behind an accent and a weak character, Oscar Isaac is very good and Scott Glenn is as great as he usually is. The script isn’t the best in the world but, again, it keeps that feel of someone reciting a script from the POV of being an actor in their own play. As Snyder co-wrote the thing with Steve Shibuya he’ll be blamed for the clichéd, weak dialogue too . . . . . . . . . . . . . by people who perhaps haven’t considered just how much of an act every version of the onscreen world is. I could be wrong, and many can take me to task over it, but I feel that anything in Sucker Punch that feels overly-stylistic or archetypal or clichéd has been designed that way, for very specific reasons.
Another big plus for the movie is the ambiguity allowing for a few different interpretations of the events and the ending (though I’m sure that many will passionately argue that, thanks to the voiceover providing a couple of extra clues, there actually isn’t any ambiguity and everything should only be read one way). The voiceover, and some extra shots at the end of the movie, actually comes close to spoiling one of the better aspects of the film. It should be up to the viewer to pick up on the visual cues and clues and process the various incidents through the filter of the different layers.
And the bad points?
While the music is great and the visuals are fantastic I was surprised to find that the audio-visual mix didn’t quite gel – the blend of music with imagery didn’t work half as well here as it did in Snyder’s past movies (and did we really need a slo-mo horizontal twirly move from Baby Doll every 20 seconds in the fight sequences??).
I was also surprised by the jittery camerawork and over-editing. Perhaps those who dislike Snyder would say that this should be expected but I’ve always thought that in the past he was able to get the balance just right between style, editing choices and action. He gets it wrong here. Big time. I was fighting back a headache with camera moves and editing that equalled that of Michael Bay at times (I don’t hate Bay but his editing of that potentially great car chase in The Rock remains a fine example of how not to do things). The move following a mechanised man put out of a moving train with the camera then moving back in was almost the same flourish as Bay gave the big shootout near the start of Bad Boys 2.
Then we have, arguably, the biggest hurdle that Sucker Punch contains, the repetition. Baby Doll is made to dance – gets weapons. Baby Doll then has to get objects. She dances – mission 1. She dances – mission 2. She dances – mission 3. Etc. It’s a shame that they couldn’t have somehow made things a bit more varied.
I think that covers everything.
Thanks to the use of allusion and metaphor, we’re left with a movie that many will view as a stylish mess centred around the power of dance (dance equates to . . . . . . well, I won’t spell it out for you) but it’s actually an excellent action flick with a surprising amount of depth and intelligence hidden behind the cool fight sequences, the cool soundtrack and the cool, kickass heroines. Nothing depicted within the movie is actually cool in any way, it’s all given that spin by someone who can’t stand to view it the way it really is.
I’d just like to end with the kind of warning I rarely, if ever, give out: Although things are referred to in various, coded ways there IS still a hell of a lot of dubious content here, considering the market it has been aimed at. Now everyone who knows me should know how at ease I am with anything an everything but this has been released here in the UK as a 12A (12s or under can attend if accompanied by an adult) and I agree with those who think the movie should have been kept full of material to give it a higher rating. As it is, it has plenty of sexual connotations and allusions to abuse while also being full of guilt-free violence (monster samurais, undead enemy soldiers, orcs and dragons, mechanised men, etc). It’s certainly not the kind of thing that would be top of my list to take any under-12 along to so I just thought I’d mention that here.
DIRECTOR: ZACK SNYDER
STARS: EMILY BROWNING, ABBIE CORNISH, JENA MALONE, JAMIE CHUNG, VANESSA HUDGENS, CARLA GUGINO, OSCAR ISAAC, SCOTT GLENN
RUNTIME: 110 MINS APPROX