REVIEW: Sucker Punch Just One Big Hypersexed Slo-Mo Misfire
Director Zack Snyder is out to create an action melodrama in Sucker Punch, bringing the voluptuous despair of Douglas Sirk to gun battles and samurai blade fights -- a high-ticket version of something we've seen in Asian cinema, from Chinese kung-fu movies to Quentin Tarantino's work to Korean revenge dramas. His martial pastiche of musical and steampunk is similar to earlier dishes of pop culture simmered down into an action reduction; Star Wars and The Matrix come to mind, among others. All that's missing is the excitement.
Sucker Punch brings to mind an old Michael O'Donoghue joke: It's like looking at pictures of naked women after having had an orgasm. Set in what could only be called The Past, the film teases with sexuality, turning star Emily Browning into a porcelain skinned, rosy-cheeked sufferer named Babydoll committed to a mental institution after a fight with her stepfather over her little sister takes an even uglier turn. The caged Babydoll retreats into her head by launching a fantasy about being trapped in a brothel/jail, and within that fantasy, she dreams up a series of violent tableaux through which she leads her interned friends -- her band of short-skirted sisters -- to vengeance. And if you think that was a run-on sentence, wait until you see the movie.
Given its surfeit of plot and its grip on a mix of music, comics and fistfights (this could be Baz Luhrmann's Sailor Moon), your mind will keep wandering as the YouTube-ready action sequences play. That's because Punch is dolorous and repetitive, a unique combination that comes from simultaneously demonstrating such technical skill and narrative shabbiness. I found myself tumbling into a fantasy triggered by a need to escape -- wondering, for example, what the movie would've been like if the late Elizabeth Taylor had been in the lead. With her lavish depictions of what used to be called neurasthenia, she turned the portrayal of women on the verge of a nervous breakdown into compelling, if sometimes laughable art: You can't imagine the world of Pedro Almodóvar without her. Unfortunately, the pack of tarnished angels in Punch (Browning's co-stars include Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung) aren't asked to do much more than press their gleaming teeth into their overripe lower lips while fighting tears or smirk saucily as spent shell casings clatter by their high-heeled feet.
Punch manages to cram more slow motion into its first few minutes than a season of NFL highlights, all of Inception and every one of those NBC promos where the casts of whatever failing police procedural walk menacingly towards the camera. That the maker of 300 and Watchmen has already fallen into the subgenre of films that are trailers for themselves is dispiriting; perhaps you'll also feel that something has been cut that would have given actual control to Babydoll. The grandiose stacking of masochism and mayhem is abetted by a proto-emo songlist including a funereal version of "Where is My Mind." Sadly for the song's singular originators, The Pixies, it has become this generation's version of "I Will Survive" in the movies -- a way to emphasize lack of subtext.
Because of the PG-13 drooling over victims in Sucker Punch, the movie shows none of the misdirection its title proclaims. Rather, it suggests a line from Frank Borzage (and, later, Phil Spector): "He hit me, and it felt like a kiss."