By this time, every critic in the land has had his or her way with Sucker Punch. Barbed witticisms have been sharpened to razor points, and big, walloping sucker punches (yes) have landed in the movie’s gut. In a final humiliation, Sucker Punch has bowed at the box office to a film starring a Wimpy Kid. So I’m going to take another route and say I enjoyed director Zack Snyder’s expensive folly.
First, cautionary notes: If you expect well-drawn characters and sharp dialogue in your comic-book-style movies, don’t see Sucker Punch. If you want the action in action movies to make sense, don’t see Sucker Punch. If you seek credible female empowerment narratives, don’t see Sucker Punch. If you need something to entertain your kids, don’t see Sucker Punch. (It’s rated PG-13. It shouldn’t be.)
But do see Sucker Punch if you’re curious about what might have happened if gothic shlock-mistress V.C. Andrews (author of such queasy classics as Flowers in the Attic) had lived long enough to express herself in video-game format. Get to the theater if you’d like to witness an operatic tale of domestic violence set to a slow cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”; or a martial-arts showdown in which a girl in a small skirt chops the hell out of demon samurai in rice-paper hats to the strident strains of Björk’s “Army of Me.” (Snyder can sure make a music video.)
Or, if you’d like to see Transformers and 300 being mashed up with Burlesque and Cabaret and bits of All That Jazz, Brazil, Kill Bill and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — just for the novelty — you’ll appreciate this film for the heartfelt mess it is.
There is a plot. A multilayered one. In mid-century Vermont, a girl (Emily Browning) incurs the wrath of her evil stepfather and is institutionalized. (The film’s final shot of rolling wheat fields is sufficient to establish that it wasn’t shot in Vermont, or in any real place outdoors on Earth.)
As our heroine, called only Baby Doll, is readied for a lobotomy, we escape with her into her fantasy world, where another girl (Abbie Cornish) is enacting Baby Doll’s torment as part of a burlesque number. Cornish stops the rehearsal to complain that there isn’t, or shouldn’t be, anything titillating about the forced-institutionalization-and-lobotomy scenario. Savor it: This is the film’s one moment of self-awareness.
Then Baby Doll reappears in Cabaret World, which turns out to be a swanky whorehouse run by a sadist (Oscar Isaac) and just as murky and confining as Asylum World. In this parallel story line, Browning becomes a heroine who uses her powers of Sexy Dancing to mesmerize men and lead her fellow private dancers (who include Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung) toward freedom. When she dances, she jets off to yet a third level of her subconscious, where she and the other girls become superheroes in settings ranging from World War I steampunk to swords-and-sorcery fantasy, guided by a sensei (Scott Glenn) and his self-consciously trite aphorisms. Somehow this mid-century girl’s escapist delusions coincide eerily with those of a present-day male gamer.
Snyder has built his career on remaking other people’s beloved films (Dawn of the Dead) and adapting their iconic comics (300, Watchmen). Sucker Punch isn’t based on anything but, one assumes, the fantasies playing in his own head. (He cowrote the script with Steve Shibuya.) It’s a labor of love that must have been embarrassing to participate in — especially for grown-up actresses such as Cornish, Malone and Carla Gugino, who spend the whole film in lingerie. But, like an overwrought power ballad you can’t turn off, Sucker Punch somehow pulls out a grand final chorus and packs a bit of a punch, after all.