29 March 2011

Movie Review: Sucker Punch



D+

Sucker Punch
2011, 109mins, 12
Director: Zack Snyder
Writer (s): Zack Snyder, Steve Shibuya
Cast includes: Emily Browning, Carla Gugino, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm
UK Release Date: 1st April 2011

Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” is an odd beast, an epic fantasy sprawled over several layers of existence. In concept at least the picture is rather promising, a massive blockbuster examining the lengths a troubled mind will go in order to attain peace. However in execution the movie largely misfires, damaged by subpar lead performances, an incredibly muddled screenplay and a lack of engaging action. Snyder’s ability to craft marvelous looking films remains unquestionable, but “Sucker Punch” once again confirms he’s no master storyteller.

“Sucker Punch” operates over three very distinct layers of its protagonist’s psyche, the character in question being a young woman known only as Baby Doll (Emily Browning). Having been wrongfully committed to an insane asylum by her lecherous stepfather, Baby Doll is threatened with a full blown lobotomy almost immediately after her arrival. In order to escape her disturbed reality, Baby Doll retreats into her head, dreaming up a world in which she is a burlesque dancer at a club run by the corrupt Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac). There she forms an alliance with the other dancers: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). The group eventually reaches the conclusion they need to escape, Baby Doll formulating a plan that requires attaining five random objects. Whilst in pursuit of these items, Baby Doll slips even further into her mind, imagining an apocalyptic environment in which the gang, armed with weapons and skimpy clothing, do battle with all manner of monster and opposition whilst searching for the designated articles. However the clock is ticking, the girls have to make their break for freedom before the mysterious High Roller (Jon Hamm) comes to town.

As he did with his excellent adaptation of “Watchmen”, Snyder opens “Sucker Punch” with a bang. Snyder delivers the necessary exposition smoothly, setting up Baby Doll’s tragic circumstances with clarity and atmosphere. However as soon as Baby Doll starts descending into the fantasy worlds the film starts to collapse, Snyder becoming preoccupied with visual bravado at the expense of the script. There are moments in the burlesque environment that work, but every sequence set in the third reality fails, and increasingly one gets the feeling that’s where Snyder applied the majority of his attention. The action sequences are aggressively violent and sufficiently large in scale, but sadly there’s’ no innovation or creative energy evident. The filmmaker just resorts to his old slow-mo tricks (seriously count the amount of times a young woman flips over a sword!), stimulating set-pieces that feel ripped directly from a particularly generic videogame. There’s little soul or purpose at all in “Sucker Punch”, but when it comes to the bombastic action the movie ceases to even care about its human population. Snyder appears to think that simply adding meticulously rendered dragons and zombie soldiers will make his movie exciting, but due to his lack of imagination that’s not the case. The old adage “it’s not what you have, but what you do with it” has rarely felt so appropriate.

Emily Browning is weak in “Sucker Punch”, the actress failing to inject Baby Doll with any sense of pathos or heart. As with several of her other co-stars she looks tremendously attractive in her jailbait outfit, but that doesn’t prevent her performance from being one note. Chung and Hudgens are both dreadful, the latter laughably miscast in Snyder’s depraved universe. Jena Malone is slightly better, whilst Abbie Cornish actually delivers something approaching a good performance. Cornish is able to find a personality amidst the wooden dialogue that everyone else appears unable to detect. Carla Gugino vamps it up spectacularly as the girl’s polish dance mentor, although Oscar Isaac is actually rather menacing as the sleazy Blue Jones. “Sucker Punch” does manage to mount some tension in the burlesque realm towards its conclusion, much of that largely down to Isaac’s genuinely threatening turn. Jon Hamm on the other hand is only in about three scenes, and feels completely wasted in all of them.

The soundtrack is uneven, the song selection never able to give the production anything more than a surface level adrenaline rush. Being a Zack Snyder film, “Sucker Punch” is of course visually flawless, both the cinematography and CGI reaching a pretty dazzling standard. However had Snyder shown more attention to the undercurrents of familial distress and mental anguish that only lightly season “Sucker Punch”, and slightly less to the picture’s aesthetic then it would almost certainly be a more satisfying endeavor. There are moments of hostile interaction between Rocket and Sweet Pea that allow a little emotion to drip into this otherwise barren offering, and Baby Doll’s heartbreaking psychological breakdown is never given the attention it deserves. Instead “Sucker Punch” becomes obsessed with lethargic excess, resulting in a hollow excuse for entertainment.

Some will attack the film as being misogynistic, although I do feel that was never Snyder’s intention. Although he absolutely misses the mark in trying to write strong female characters, at least an obvious effort to do so was made. The revealing outfits the gorgeous actresses have to wear do appear to be an obvious attempt to conjure up a nerd’s wet dream, but “Sucker Punch” has too many other fundamental problems for that to be a major concern. Indeed Snyder’s camera seems far more fixated on the director’s stale mythical creations than any physical attributes possessed by the thespians. He occasionally looks, but in fairness, the director never really stares.

It’s interesting to note that “Sucker Punch” is Zack Snyder’s first rumba with original material, his other works all being remakes or adaptations of some kind. It’s not an encouraging start to this segment of his career, the outcome a distressingly messy affair. I wasn’t impressed by “Sucker Punch”, my only hope being that through it Snyder has indulged his poorer instincts sufficiently, and that afterward he can return to making worthwhile features like “Watchmen” again. You’ll be sucker punched if you waste your time or money on this one.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

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