Sucker Punch! is, in every sense of the word, an extraordinary film, i.e it’s highly unusual or, even, remarkable. However, before I get to a spoiler-rich discussion of it, I need to refer, yet again, to the fundamental dishonesty of the trailer.
You can just imagine the elation when the creative marketing team learnt it had won the job of promoting the new film by Zack Snyder. Like, he’s hot, having just reeled off both 300 and Watchmen (carefully forgetting Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole which was a bit twee). Yet, after sitting through the rough cut, you can imagine their despair. How were they going to promote this little baby? Well, the one sure way to get all the fan boys paying their way into cinemas around the world is to highlight the fantasy CGI sequences. Babes kicking ass is a sure-fire winner. It’s just a shame that’s not at all representative of what the film is actually about and, although I didn’t take a stopwatch into the cinema with me, probably doesn’t occupy more than 30 of a total 110 minutes screen time. So, if all you want to see is scantily-clad females waving guns and swords around, measure your threshold of boredom carefully before going. There was a lot of restless shuffling of feet and coughing during the second half of the film when I saw it.
If you don’t want to know what this film is about stop reading here.
This is a bait-and-switch film nestling in a framework representing the Matrix trilogy or Inception redux. Let’s start off with the opening sequences. This is highly stylised, creating a visual impression of the late 1950s overlaid with a contemporary music track — a dissonance that continues to the end. We see a double murder with the step-daughter framed and taken off to a beautifully recreated loony bin of the most primitive variety. Here the step-father bribes the corrupt head nurse to arrange for the girl to be lobotomised at the earliest possible moment. Hearing this, the girl escapes into what I shall call Tier 1 fantasy. We have watched all the careful shot selections as she is taken into the asylum. Now all this vanishes, with the hospital and staff transforming into the team running a bordello servicing the needs of the local mayor, corrupt officials and mafia-style criminals.
Our heroine is named Baby Doll (Emily Browning), and meets with four other inmates: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). When she is persuaded to devise a dance that will endear her to the men who will buy time with her, she enters the Tier 2 fantasy. Here she meets a guide. This may be an “angel” or, if you prefer consistency with the first Tier 2 scenario, a kung fu master. Either way, he’s played by Scott Glen who struggles not to call the girl Grasshopper as he offers elliptical advice, drawing on elements we saw so lovingly highlighted as the girl was forcibly inducted into the asylum. This is the escape plan.
Now you should see the parallel with Inception. We have a multiple level framework in which the “real” world is overlaid with two layers of fantasy. To break free in the “real” world, the two levels of fantasy have to work together to collect the means of escape, i.e. a map of the asylum, a means to start a fire as a diversion, a knife for self-defence and a mystery ingredient that “she” will recognise when she sees it. Most of the action takes place in the Tier 1 bordello where the head nurse cum pimp played by a delightfully smarmy Oscar Isaac is first tricked and then vengeful when the trick is discovered. We have four CGI sequences. The second and third are magnificent of their type. Some of the imagery is genuinely striking with the WW I trench warfare scenes particularly effective as zombie soldiers, biplanes and zeppelins offer token resistance. In the third, the disposition of the baby dragon is pleasingly unsentimental and the fight with the mother strong because it does not go on too long. The final element where things really start to go wrong is somewhat repetitive and less than original but, all things considered, these CGI elements are impressive.
As the Tier 1 world also starts to fall apart, it’s up to the survivors to make their escape attempt and so, for the first time, we get back to the asylum proper. It’s at this point, however, that events take an unfortunate turn. I will leave you to see the ending and make up your own mind, but I think this is a serious misjudgment — a misjudgment that’s actually compounded by the appearance of the “angel” in the “real” world. Except, of course, it may be that the whole sequence of events from the moment she’s admitted into the asylum is a fantasy. I suggest this possibility based on the way the final scenes on the bus are shot. It has a look and feel suggesting it’s not real. Thus, the whole escape scenario could be fantasised as a defence-mechanism to cope with the threat of the lobotomy. This would fit the general relationship between the Tiers of fantasy given that the patients we see in the “real” auditorium become the whores become the anime heroines, i.e. the “girls” could all be aspects of Baby Doll’s personality.
To sum up, the acting is adequate. Let’s face it, the girls don’t have to do anything particularly demanding, while the principal guys are only required to move the plot forward. Everyone else is cannon fodder. But the resulting whole is a very effective visual experience. The general shot selection is excellent and the cinematography is pleasingly atmospheric in a gothic style. The CGI sequences are great fun even though the fourth and last grows slightly boring. So, allowing for the interesting way in which the whole film ends, I am inclined to like it. I’m disappointed by the failure to carry through to the more obvious emotional pay-off, but I guess that’s life. Just as not everyone gets to escape from imprisonment in a secure mental hospital, so we paying customers can’t always expect to get what we want — think Shutter Island and Identity with Baby Doll an extremely unreliable narrator. Ignore the trailer and, if you want to see something out of the ordinary (that’s extraordinary, you understand) then this is worth going to see in the same way the Matrix trilogy and Inception were worth seeing, i.e. none of the films are life as we know it, Jim, but they are life as imagined or dreamed or whatever.