SUCKER PUNCH Review -- A More Positive Take

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas, USA (@peteramartin)
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SUCKER PUNCH Review -- A More Positive Take
"Comic book sensibility" is not a negative term when applied to the filmmaking approach of Zack Snyder. It's merely a description of his mode of operation, in which he gives as much weight to visuals as to straightforward narrative in expressing his vision of a story.

Of course, it can be argued that all films balance the visual and the narrative, and that ideally they should be weighted equally, but ambitious filmmakers don't follow all the rules; that's part of what makes them special.

Zack Snyder is nothing if not ambitious, willingly remaking an iconic zombie flick by a revered filmmaker (Dawn of the Dead), then tackling two legendary comic creations (300, Watchmen).  With his previous film, Legend of the Guardians, Snyder proved he could apply his sensibility to material perceived as only for children, and make it his own.

Sucker Punch marks his first attempt at fashioning a film from material not based on another source. (Snyder is credited with the story and co-authorship of the script with Steve Shibuya.) It also marks another step in his evolution as a filmmaker. His patented reliance on extended slow-motion action scenes and extreme close-ups remains intact; what's different are the spaces between those moments.

For want of a better word, Sucker Punch evinces a greater degree of restraint. In his previous films, Snyder has been overly concerned with grabbing the audience by the throat and then squeezing until consciousness is lost. Legend of the Guardians trended away from that sledgehammer approach; part of that can be attributed to the requirements of animation, part to the needs of the original story, and part to the need to lighten things up for younger viewers.

The softer approach taken in Sucker Punch is marvelously effective as far as the overall flow of the film; you feel less like you're being thrown around like a sack of potatoes and more like an individual who can engage with the themes that are explored in a tale of five young women seeking a way out from terrible circumstances beyond their control.

The framing device for the film is that a young woman is delivered to a mental institution by her evil stepfather. The institution features "Polish therapy," a form of performance treatment advocated by a psychiatrist, in which the patients act out dramas. But there will be none of that for the young woman; she will be lobotomized five days hence.

In the blink of an eye, the young woman awakens as Baby Doll (Emily Browning), delivered to a dance club / brothel run by the evil Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac). The psychiatrist becomes dance teacher Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino). Baby Doll is informed that she must learn an elaborate dance to please the men that visit the club, who will then select their favorite and take them in the back rooms for unmentionable activities.

Baby Doll is introduced to her fellow dancers cum prostitutes: protective Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), friendly Rocket (Jena Malone), sassy Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and meek Amber (Jamie Chung). Baby Doll seems too shy to ever consider getting up on stage and dancing seductively for strangers, but she demonstrates surprising strength when she rises to the defense of Rocket after she's attacked by the club's cook.

Later, when Baby Doll tries out a dance number for the other ladies, she is transported yet again to a fantasy world, this one marked by the presence of a wise old man (Scott Glenn) and the requirement to battle bloodthirsty opponents. First up: fire-eyed giant Samurai robots!

While the aforementioned softer, more mellow approach makes it easier to follow the narrative, and to avoid confusion with the multiple dips into alternate realities -- Baby Doll must undertake multiple missions in a variety of fantasy worlds in order to gain the objects needed to escape from the dance club before she is sold into white slavery -- it also makes the film's redundancies feel more schematic. Thus, by the third trip into fantasy, we're anticipating the general arc and wondering which variation will be played. (It doesn't help that the fantasies almost feel mundane, a victim of the general onslaught of CGI creatures in recent years; more pixels do not equal more peril.) The pace becomes increasingly labored right at the point where it should be quickening in tension.

We're also faced with an untenable dilemma, in that the villain of the piece is far from monstrous, or frightening, or even a little bit scary. It's a shocking miscalculation to have Oscar Isaac as Blue Jones appear more annoying than threatening; he's far too vanilla, too puny, too inadequate to the task. The actor either lacks the menace that's needed, or was directed to act like a fop by Snyder. Without a hint of danger, a major sequence late in the film fails completely, leading to the film ending with a whimper rather than a bang. This is a case where the softer approach, and the desire for a PG-13 rating, blunt the overall impact severely.

Before things fall apart, however, considerable visual delights are presented, along with a little food for thought. As predictable as they become, the fantasy missions are a lot of fun to watch, dream-like in mashing elements together from disparate genres, so that a martial arts girl with a sword may square off with Nazi zombie solders who emit puffs of white smoke rather than spurts of blood, while squishy dirigibles float overhead.

The individual ladies can easily be considered as splinters of Baby Doll's fracturing mind. All together, they make up one fascinating personality, and it feels as though Baby Doll is straining to reconciles the warring aspects so she can achieve a measure of peace and contentment.

It's too bad that the individual parts fail to add up to a satisfying whole. Considered individually, those segments -- and Snyder's stab at creating an episodic adventure entirely from the viewpoint of a young woman who may or may not have lost her mind -- are very tantalizing.

As it is, Sucker Punch is a fun trip that feels defanged and neutered by the PG-13 rating, as well as the missing (and perhaps excised?) full-bodied musical /dance sequences that might have really sent it over the top into legendary nutso territory. You'll have to sit through the credits to get a taste of one of the musical numbers. 

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