27 March 2011

Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch

Starring Emily Browning, Vanessa Hudgens, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, John Hamm, Scott Glenn
Written by Steve Shibuya & Zack Snyder
Directed by Zack Snyder
Release: 25 March 2011
Legendary Pics., 109 mins., Rated PG-13

Plot: Wrongfully institutionalized in a mental asylum, Baby Doll plots her escape with her inmate friends finding the strength within from a fantasy world full of samurai swords and guns.

SUCKER PUNCH is an example of Zack Snyder having a cool idea but failing to deliver on the boundless promise it had. While still knee-deep in WATCHMEN, Snyder was interested in action pieces not bound by the laws of physics, where literally anything was possible. Sounds intriguing enough. Now with INCEPTION's success, audiences would be more open and accepting to the idea of action pieces taking place within the mind. And then the trailer(s) hit the web, and they looked amazing. There were few films I looked forward to more than SUCKER PUNCH, and I don't think there will be many that have disappointed me so.

No matter the attire of the girls, or the brilliant compliment of action and music, or the gorgeous and stylized visuals, or spectacular action sequences, it cannot work without drama, without some sense of jeopardy or matter. That, for me, is where SUCKER PUNCH fails to achieve the great film it could have been. When Baby Doll retreats into her fantasy world to escape reality, Snyder treats us with some truly spectacular imagery. Baby Doll and her friends Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie and Amber engaged in combat with extraordinary forces - reanimated Nazi zombies, dragons, robo ninjas - is visually arresting, but lacks stakes or any emotional involvement from the viewer. Yes, Baby enters this landscape as a form of escape but also as a means to 'guide' her towards procuring her freedom in reality, but the fight scenes come off as a little heartless; there is no emotional investment from the viewer other than the 'pretttty' factor. And I thought that would be enough for me, I thought I would be satisfied and happy with just watching Emily Browning and Vanessa Hudgens in attractive outfits fighting motherfrraking zombie Nazis and dragons with guns and a sword. But I wasn't. It's as if Snyder couldn't figure out the key to his own script, coming up with some brilliant, original reason/device that would make everything in the movie fit and tie in with one another, and instead settled with what we have now: reality and a fantasy world full of fantastical but shallow battle scenes.

Surprisingly, I found myself more glued into the drama of the institution, particularly the last act as the body count rises and a ending I didn't see coming graced the screen. I watched with full attention as Baby Doll and her friends carry out their plans to retrieve the items that would lead to their escape, because there was real drama, real emotion, real jeopardy in those scenes. And when Blue Jones (Isaac) starts putting two and two together and confronts the girls about their scheme, that was some intense material, same as the opening scene with Baby Doll's story told in effective slow motion.

I feel it worth saying that I did not expect, nor wanted, another MATRIX level film that boasted thought provoking questions and philosophy. I just wanted to sit back in my seat and enjoy my time, but ultimately, the shortcomings of the script weighed too heavy. If Snyder and Shibuya had just found a way to generate some sort of connection and peril with the fantasy scenes - and maybe tighten them up a bit in editing - I would be all over SUCKER PUNCH glorifying it with accolades, but they sadly miss a rather vital part of screenwriting: making the audience care.

Without delving deep into the argument breaking out concerning whether SUCKER PUNCH promotes female empowerment, my two cents is if that was Snyder and Shibuya's desired result, they didn't achieve clearly, either. Without the connection to the action scenes, we don't have a connection to Baby Doll and her friends and their subsequent empowerment of body, mind and, dare I say, soul. It could be said that they gained the strength to rise up against their oppresses, and Baby Doll's fantasy world [and, I take it, only hers - I don't think her friends partook in their own dreamscape] gave her the strength to plot her breakout and execute it, but again, if that was the case, the writers and actresses did not sell that well enough.

Visually, director Snyder is at the top of his game here. There are two instances that absolutely wowed me: a simple scene of Blondie, Rocket and Sweet Pea sitting in front of the dressing room mirrors talking, and Snyder tracks across the girls, through the mirrors reflect and back to tracking the girls again. It's not exactly new filmmaking, but never fails to leave me impressive, and this is not exception. Another feat that I have mixed feelings about is in Baby Doll's fantasy world when they're battling robots on a train who are guarding a bomb. Snyder indulges in slow motion and single takes to the point it gets fairly tiring and (at times) unconvincing (thanks to a bit too much CGI), but nonetheless is visually pretty cool. There are times, though, Snyder makes the slow motion work for him. Take the opening ten minutes for instance. Grainy, beautifully lit, and hauntingly juxtaposed to the song 'Sweet Dreams', the slow motion adds intensity to Baby Doll's familial predicament and incarceration. The fantasy worlds are equally magnificently brought to life, visually and through digital effects, such as the spaghetti western vibe when Baby Doll faces off against the gargantuan samurai when she first detaches her mind, or when Baby Doll and Amber face off against a dragon. Impressive and awesome as they may be, there are times, however, where it does get to be too much - either the dark brown color palette or rapid editing - and it's nice to be back in the institution.

Emily Browning pulls off the action scenes with ease, as if she was born for this, but ultimately doesn't deliver as well with her character pieces. That said, she definitely sells the saddness and sorrow when she 'performs' with her eyes and stilted movements. Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung aren't given adequate time to really give memorable performances, and they all are kind of glued together in the "they were okay" category. Malone in particular I was looking forward to, after her great stint in SAVED!, and I would say out of those four she is the strongest actor. Scott Glenn is the Wise Man, the one in the fantasy world that debriefs Baby Doll and the girls on their next mission, spouting off lines of philosophy with a wide smile ("if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything"). Oscar Isaac is equally enjoying his role as the man in charge Blue Jones, full of fun and menace simultaneously.

So, final thoughts on SUCKER PUNCH. I was entertained for the most part, and like everyone else on the planet, the visuals and special effects were gorgeous, and the girls were attractive and fulfilled the obligations of their roles, but Shibuya and Snyder simply didn't deliver a script that cashed in on the promise of its premise. SUCKER PUNCH could have been great, but instead is Snyder's least attractive efforts, with WATCHMEN still his crowning achievement.

Rating: 6/10 = Misses the punch, but still an impressive endeavor boasting jaw-dropping visuals but lacking in the drama department


Jack L said...

Great review,
You were kinder to it than a lot of the reviews I've read around other blogs.
I still think I'll skip it though, I was kind of looking forward to it and I hoped it would be a Synder film I would enjoy for once, but apparently it's one of his worst.
I might see it someday though, for free...

Reel Whore said...

I agree with Jack L, you were kinder than me. You are right that there were some impressive visual imagery, but the lack of a cohesive and emotionally-investing story undermines everything.

Fitz said...

I'll give this a look on DVD, but expecting nothing from the storyline. Hopefully Snyder remembers to give Superman's story some heart.