Friday, May 20, 2011

Sucker Punch

Note: Sucker Punch was released on March 25, 2011, though I didn’t see it until May.

One of the companies that produced Sucker Punch is named “Cruel and Unusual Productions.” Those words sum up at least half of Sucker Punch, the most fetishized action picture to come along in a while, perhaps since 300. Zack Snyder directed both movies, but while 300 was based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, Sucker Punch is an original script by Snyder. Therein lies the problem. Some scenes are exciting and visually daring, but others are depressing and downright dreary. It’s a weird mix of visual and emotional elements that just don’t come together to make a good movie. You can sense the potential for an original, entertaining summer picture, but the finished product is an uneven mess.

Emily Browning plays Baby Doll, a young woman abused and then committed to an asylum by her stepfather who hopes to cheat her out of the inheritance from her mother’s death. Once Baby Doll arrives at the asylum, she partners with other young women in a plot to break free (judging by the other inmates, Baby Doll has apparently been sent to the asylum for hot girls). Along the way, she closes her eyes and envisions herself as a superhero, fighting her way through fantastic battles. The film cuts back and forth between her action-packed fantasies and the harsh reality of her wrongful imprisonment.

It’s clear that the action scenes represent the movie Zach Snyder wanted to make. Beautiful young women in schoolgirl outfits swinging samurai swords at robots and dragons; it’s a teenage guy’s dream, and while the teenage guy within me wanted to love Sucker Punch, the film’s other scenes made it impossible. The contrast between the asylum and the fantasy is much too stark, which was an intentional choice but one that didn’t pay off. The overall tone falls somewhere between Shutter Island and the least pleasant bits of The Shawshank Redemption. The fantasy sequences are beautiful and exciting, but nothing sucks the fun out of a movie quite like the heroines living in constant danger of being raped and/or murdered.

Many will criticize Sucker Punch for having too much over-the-top, clichéd action, but that’s not the real problem. It seems that Snyder felt the need to make sense of the action scenes he envisioned, so he built a story to explain how/why Baby Doll has these great fantasies. The problem is that there’s way too much explanation, and worse still, it’s all depressing as hell. After every action sequence, just as things are heating up, the narrative reminds you of Baby Doll’s miserable situation. What lies at the intersection of goofy, exaggerated action and heavy prison material? A frustrating, upsetting movie, that’s what.

Investing fully in the fantasy would have resulted in a better picture. Sucker Punch could have been set in an alternate universe in which five beautiful, scantily-clad young women are on an epic quest to fight the forces of evil. Would any member of the target demographic have cared? As is, Sucker Punch loses its way in the abusive darkness. The fantasy action is robbed of its full potential, because even within the confines of the story, we know it’s all in Baby Doll’s head. When we’re not in her head, we’re wishing we were, as grim reality continually trumps the action and deflates the fun in record time.

Much of Sucker Punch is computer generated, but while that distinct visual style worked well in 300 and was perfect for Sin City, it rubs strangely against the asylum scenes here. There’s a certain beauty when everything looks (and is) painted by a visual effects team, but the unpleasantness of the “reality” portions doesn’t warrant such a polished aesthetic. The action scenes are well conceived, but they need more cohesion and plot connecting them. The asylum stuff should have been scrapped in favor of something more pleasant. In short, Sucker Punch should be ten times more fun than it is. It left me feeling like I had been sucker punched myself, which was no doubt intentional, but I still didn’t appreciate it.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexuality, violence and combat sequences, and for language.

Sucker Punch straddles the PG-13/R line, as there’s nothing terribly graphic in the way of sexuality or violence, but the overall tone is dark and harsh. The women are always on edge about potentially being sexually abused or even killed, and the story is quite grim. Language is medium-level but pervasive. The action is highly stylized, and the women remain scantily clad throughout.

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