By Edward Gambichler
“…If you don’t stand for something……you’ll fall for anything”
….Wise Man (Sucker Punch)
A few years back, I remember hanging out with a friend of mine from work named Ragnar during our lunch break. Ragnar was thumbing through the Victoria Secret Spring catalog and without so much as a word held up a picture of Stephanie Seymour adorned in a red satin teddy and shot me an approving nod. I, in turn, held up the swimsuit issue of Flex magazine showing a centerfold spread of female bodybuilding champ Rachel McLish giving it the same “ME LIKE, ME LIKE” approving nod. Ragnar turned to me and asked, “Hey Ed……..you love women who can beat the living s#!t out of you…..don’t you”? I didn’t give him an answer, but my sly grin conveyed it. I’ve never made it a secret, my admiration for powerful women. Mind you, you’ll never catch me in a hotel room, handcuffed to the bed, getting my nether regions shocked with an electric cattle prod by a $300 an hour leather clad S & M bondage hooker named Mistress Andromeda ( then again……maybe you would…..hey….some of you out there are my “real” friends…..you know me….). However, I can certainly tolerate a little “female empowerment” in today’s cinema. Could you blame me. Just look at some of the films this particular theme has offered to us in the past. From director Russ Meyer’s “Faster, Pussycat Kill Kill”,
Jack Hills, “Switchblade Sisters”, and as recent as Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” ( the second segment in the double feature film “Grindhouse” ), this sub-genre has provided us with not only a plethora of beautiful kick-ass babes, but also some of the most fun and campy film premises ever committed to celluloid. When news that one of my favorite directors, Zack Snyder was shooting a movie with an all female cast and calling it…..of all things…”Sucker Punch”….I couldn’t buy my ticket fast enough. And as the highly stylized character posters from the film were being distributed around the subway stations ( in the weeks leading up to the film’s release ), I couldn’t wait to see his contribution to this time honored female exploitation theme. That is….until I actually saw it….and either Zack Snyder or somebody at Warner Brothers dropped the ball.
Set in the 1950’s, Sucker Punch is the story of a young girl by the name of Baby Doll (played by actress Emily Browning). The movie starts with the tragic death of Baby Doll’s mother and she and her younger sister are left in the care of her lecherous and evil step-father. When the step-father learns that he is cheated out of the mother’s will, he decides to take his anger out by trying to molest the two girls. When Baby Doll locks herself in the closet, the step-father turns his attention to her younger sibling. However, Baby Doll gets her hands on a gun and shoots at her step-father to stop his rampage. Tragically, the bullet misses him and ricochets, killing her sister. As a result of the shooting, she is committed to an insane asylum. Upon arrival, Baby Doll overhears her step-father close a financial deal with the hospital’s head orderly Blue Jones (played with eerie menace by Oscar Isaac). In order to silence Baby Doll from testifying to the authorities regarding the real events surrounding her and her sister’s attack, Blue will forge the signature of the head therapist Dr. Vera Gorski ( played by Watchmen’s Carla Gugino ) to approve an lobotomy performed by the Doctor ( an underused Jon Hamm ). Baby Doll has five days until the Doctor comes and completes the procedure. In the all-female wing of this institution, Dr. Gorski has the girls participate in a sort of “theater” therapy group. It is in this group that the girls adopt a shared alternate psychological universe. In this reality, the hospital is transformed into a burlesque nightclub owned by the gangster Mr. Blue (actually orderly Jones ) and the girls are the house’s exotic dancers trained for the clientele’s pleasure by Madam Gorski ( Dr. Gorski ). It is here that Baby Doll befriends four other dancers: Rocket ( played by Jena Malone ), Blondie ( played by Vanessa Hudgens ), Amber ( played by Jamie Chung ), and Rocket’s big sister and the club’s main dancer, Sweet Pea ( played by Abbie Cornish ). It is also in this setting that Baby Doll discovers a valuable talent for spellbinding dancing. With the clock ticking away till her inevitable appointment with the lobotomist, Baby Doll plans her escape from the club with her new “sisters”. In order to escape, they must retrieve four items from their orderlies/ employers: a map, a knife, fire, and a key. To obtain them, Baby Doll must dance and place each of their holders under a spell while the five girls do battle with hostile forces across four alternate fantasy worlds guided by a Wise Man ( played by actor Scott Glenn ).
Now on to the positives it’s a Zack Snyder film. The man who directed “Dawn of the Dead”, “300”, and what many have considered to be an impossible film to make, “Watchmen”. As a visualist, he ranks up there with Victor Fleming, Ridley Scott, and Tim Burton to name a few. The range of his palette is reflected in the set pieces of the fantasy battlefields (ranging from feudal samurai Japan, WWII goth steampunk, to Barbarella-esque futuristic Metropolis). The fight scenes are also well choreographed and emphasized by the “slo-mo” technique that has become Snyder’s staple. And I have to give special mention to the film’s soundtrack. It contains some truly exceptional covers to classic songs like Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams” (in the opening scene), Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit (during the WWII segment ), and my own personal favorite, The Pixies “Where Is My Mind?”. What is also surprising is that the covers “Sweet Dreams” and “Where Is My Mind” contain vocals by lead actress Emily Browning. She has a lovely voice which lends a soft melancholy vibe to these traditionally off-kilter tracks.
Unfortunately, of the five actresses, only Emily Browning and Jena Malone’s characters really stand out. This theatrical release is only one hour and forty nine minutes long. The other actresses’ characters are not strong personalities and they disappear into the background. I don’t blame the actresses, but the way their roles were written for the screen. According to interviews with Zack Snyder, the studio made extensive cuts and trimmed the movie from an R-rated to a PG-13 Rated release. However, a Director’s Cut will be made available for DVD and Blu-Ray release and that, as a reviewer, leaves me in a quandary. It’s hard to render a final judgment on a film or a director’s capabilities, based upon a studio edit. I and other reviewers run the risk of being too harsh on a film only to put our feet in our collective mouths when a re-release proves we “jumped the gun” in our initial negative assessment. I did not think too highly of Mark Steven Johnson’s theatrical version of “Daredevil”, but his Director’s Cut made it a different viewing experience altogether ( lending the movie a more nuanced tone ).
Another problem with this film in regards to a fantasy genre film-maker of Snyder’s stature is that its subject matter has given him too much to work with. Not to say the CGI in this film is not impressive……it is just too much. After awhile, the effects have a tendency to take the audience out of the film due to sensory overload (making a PS3 fed generation of movie-goers especially susceptible). There isn’t a particular “money shot” that stands out from the rest of the scenes. What Snyder needs to do is take a step back in his next film, like Tim Burton did with “Ed Wood” and concentrate on substance rather than presentation. The one director who seems to be immune from this overindulgence is Christopher Nolan (who’s dream within a dream narrative in “Inception” worked better and made more sense than the structure in this film).
Nolan’s emphasis is on large scale physical effects and it gives real weight to it’s surroundings and the characters that appear within. And last, the dark and somber mood to this film has torpedoed my initial hopes for a real fun and carefree femme fatale fest. I wish this level of CGI and Zack Snyder were around in the 60’s or 80’s. A sort of Mamie Van Doren meets “Tank Girl” hybrid, instead of Avril Lavigne meets Marilyn Manson. I like my “good girls gone” BAD, not MANIC DEPRESSIVE SUICIDAL.