Sucker Punch (2011)

Rating: ****
Release Date: 3/25/11
Written And Directed By: Zack Snyder
Cast: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Scott Glenn, Jon Hamm

The critics have not been kind to Zack Snyder, and the overwhelming consensus regarding "Sucker Punch" has been "avoid this movie at all costs." It has even drawn comparisons to the universally reviled "Showgirls" (1995), which many consider a textbook example of how NOT to make a movie.

And I loved every minute of it.

Now, don't get me wrong. "Sucker Punch" is not a particularly good movie, but it's brilliantly executed and elevated by some truly extraordinary filmmaking. It's also the most undiluted celebration of female action ferocity that I've ever seen, and brings to life every dark and twisted adolescent fantasy I've ever had. It's as if Mr. Snyder looked straight into my soul and said "Gee, I wonder what kind of film Alex would like to see?" He totally gets it, and this may be the final word in female action cinema. But it's not without problems.

The story concerns a girl called "Baby Doll" (Emily Browning) who is institutionalized by her wicked stepfather and scheduled for a lobotomy so that she can't testify against his wrongdoings. In her final days, she retreats into the sanctuary of her tortured mind while coming up with a desperate plan to break out of the asylum. Helping her out are several other victimized patients: Rocket (Jena Malone), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). The film operates on multiple levels of unreality, with the sole purpose of stringing together the fantastic action sequences. In the deepest regions of Baby Doll's subconscious, the girls become nigh invulnerable warriors, fighting mystical samurai, Nazi zombies, orcs, dragons, and robots in a number of fantastical settings. The execution and realization of these sequences is nearly flawless and the actresses brilliantly hit all of their marks. They are extremely convincing and the physical intensity of their performances is awe inspiring. Again, Snyder completely understands the genre, and perhaps even more importantly, managed to convey this understanding to the performers. He also does a phenomenal job of capturing, following, and predicting the action, so you get to see EVERYTHING. This is where most directors and editors fail, and why most Hollywood action films are crap. They try to cheat the audience, whereas Snyder is out to treat the audience. He wants us to see what he sees. It's indulgent filmmaking, but in the best way. What's most fascinating to me is that he manages to pull this off without any blood, which is an astonishing achievement. Action of this caliber is usually relegated to R-rated movies.

More than anything, "Sucker Punch" reminded me of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" (1985) with its cognitive dissociation and escape to fantasy in the face of hopeless desperation. Unfortunately, it doesn't pack the same emotional and psychological punch that "Brazil" does, and the weak plot and poor dialog cause the film to fall short of greatness. It's utterly joyless and generally unpleasant, which makes the plight of the girls difficult to bear. Snyder also has difficulty wrapping things up, and the epilogue seems loose, drawn out, and overly self important. Even though the film looks spectacular, I noted a few personal things that bothered me. First of all: digital steam. While it isn't as terrible as "G.I. Joe" (2009), it just doesn't work and I found it to be a constant distraction. Next is shoe continuity, which is a HUGE pet peeve of mine. Yes, I understand that fighting in 4" heels is difficult (if not impossible), but having shoes change between shots is not acceptable. Consistency is key here, but I'm willing to offer a little slack for the sake of fantasy. Also, while I can understand it from a stylistic and thematic point of view, I thought the makeup was pretty awful. And why do women wear blush? It's not attractive and just makes them look sick and unhealthy. Lastly, the soundtrack is an unfortunate mess of forgettable classic rock remixes, and the embarrassing closing credits leave a bad aftertaste. What's even more disappointing is that those musical sequences will probably be expanded and re-inserted into the inevitable unrated director's cut of the film.

Ultimately, my feelings on this movie are divided. It's the kind of movie that I've always wanted to see, and it's also the kind of movie that I've always wanted to make. The characters and action scenes are top notch, exquisitely crafted, and highly imaginative, but the premise that grounds them in reality is unpleasant and the downbeat ending is disappointing. The film isn't as thought provoking as it wants to be, but it's still given me a lot to think about. It's also worth noting that it defies Warner Brothers' "no female leads" policy, which may be its most subversive triumph. It's primarily visual fluff, and I can really only recommend it to open-minded and artistic people who appreciate the bombastic flair of early 90s Hong Kong cinema and its tendency to favor style over substance.