Sucker Punch, 2011.
Directed by Zack Snyder.
Starring Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Oscar Isaac, Carla Gugino, Jon Hamm and Scott Glenn.
Locked away against her will, a young girl’s vivid imagination provides a thrilling escape from her dark reality.
With Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder is for the first time directing a film that isn’t based on a pre-existing property. Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (tee hee) all take their cue from other sources. Re-making Romero, adapting Frank Miller and trying to bring Alan Moore’s opus (good luck pleasing him) all gave the director someone else’s ideas to riff and build on.
Sucker Punch marks the first feature film Snyder has conceived and written from the ground up. Initially starting out as a short story of Snyder’s, Sucker Punch grew into an elaborate, $150 million dollar fantasy epic and, as such, the burden rests entirely on him. Co-scripting the film with Steve Shibuya, Snyder has turned out a film high in fantastical, over the top action but lacking when it comes to the justification of the carnage on screen.
After finding herself imprisoned in ‘Lennox Home for the Mentally Insane’ (can someone be ‘Physically Insane’?) via the machinations of her evil, abusive step-father, Babydoll (Emily Browning) conjures up a plan to escape with her fellow inmates Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jenna Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung), striving to find the five items they need to escape – a key, a knife, fire, a map and a mystery object that will only be revealed to Babydoll at the end of her quest.
Finding herself staring down the barrel of a forced lobotomy, Babydoll and her cohorts soon get to work attaining the necessary items. It’s at this point that the story switches to a 30s style burlesque setting with Blue (Oscar Isaac), the corrupt, deviant orderly taking on the role of pimp and overlord who controls his stable of dancing girls with violence and intimidation. The Polish head psychiatrist Doctor Gorski (Carla Gugino) becomes Madame Gorski and is tasked with whipping Babydoll into shape so she can perform for the various greasy perverts that frequent Blue’s imaginary club. From this point, Babydoll uses her dancing to enter a kind of trance, projecting herself into the various fantastical fantasies where she and the other girls take on, amongst others, dragons, cyborgs, medieval knights, steam punk World War I German soldiers and various other outlandish ghouls in order to find their needed items. Whilst the burlesque club setting is vividly rendered and special kudos must be paid to Isaac for his performance, whirling from charming and charismatic to wholly unpredictable and sadistic, this intermediate buffer between the reality of the asylum and the fantasy segments does kind of kill off the dark power of the asylum, rendering it as a briefly mentioned, background concern as you become embroiled in the club and fantasy settings.
This leads to one of the major downfalls of the film, in that Snyder is obviously a talented director when it comes to rendering the action, anarchically imbuing the action with every fantasy, video game and anime element any 14-25 year old male (who is actually interested in those things) will find irresistible and joyous. And, indeed, these portions of the film do swirl and rush with a great momentum, sweeping the viewer up with their enthusiasm and verve. These sections can only sustain the film so far though, and well rendered action doesn’t make a complete film.
This where the film falls down; the prologue of Babydoll’s defiant stand against her step-father and subsequent mentions of abuse (both sexual and physical) feel slightly tacked on to the film, as though Snyder felt a need to ground the film with something adult, so as to point out that all the fantasy and outlandish goings on are wholly justified as the desperate escapism of a young girl. What it is in fact hard to pin down is whether the subtext of abuse is, as mentioned, a way to make the film feel more ‘adult’ or whether it is because Snyder lacks the maturity as a filmmaker to convey the issues of sexual and physical abuse in a way that is mature, understanding and well-defined. To take on such a thorny and difficult issue would test any director or writer, let alone Snyder who seems far more interested in the action elements of the film than coherently addressing the most major issue raised in the film.
Beyond the stilted handling on the abuse Babydoll is subject to in real life, Emily Browning fits well in the role of Babydoll and it is immense fun to see her and her co-stars pirouetting madly through insane action scenarios and the female cast acquit themselves admirably as fearsome warriors. It’s just a shame that their dramatic chops are tested all to briefly, with scenes of real emotional depth few and far between. But when they are called on to inject some heartfelt feeling, they all put in solid work with Abbie Cornish pulling off a difficult role as the naysayer of the group, eventually transforming herself through some emotional turmoil into a resilient survivor.
Overall, the film works well on the level of ridiculous over the top action but cannot sustain itself as a parable of female heroism in the face of male-led oppression. Snyder once again proves his worth as a director of balletic violence (even if he does fall back on musical cues too often to try and inject a scene with emotional worth) but does not convincingly craft Sucker Punch into a film that packs any kind of real emotional weight.
Sucker Punch is released in UK cinemas this Friday.