Dodge This 'Sucker Punch'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"This is the kind of movie that makes you crave reality," a flummoxed friend commented after seeing this exhaustingly elaborate and oppressively overdetermined fantasy. The first feature from fan-boy-fave director Zack Snyder that's not an adaptation of another work, "Sucker Punch" is so thoroughly derivative that, while watching it, one feels almost certain that it's a movie version of a bad graphic novel, or several video games ("Hey, this is 'Castle Wolfenstein'!" I couldn't help saying to myself during a scene featuring an onslaught of zombie German soldiers), or some other movie, or something. Matter of fact, were one asked to come up with a concise précis of the movie -- not an easy task, given its convolution -- one could conceivably get away with "'Sin City' meets 'Brazil,' only really, really bad."
And yet that's not all. And, as we were going to say, despite all evidence to the contrary, "Sucker Punch" is an original Snyder creation; he concocted the story and co-wrote the screenplay with Steve Shibuya. And what a story it is. In a dialogue-free, near-incoherent opening sequence scored to a lugubrious cover of "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This," a winsome young blonde held captive in her own house by a rapacious and murderous stepfather is framed by said stepfather for the murder of her younger sister, and shipped off to the very gray Lennox House for the Mentally Insane (Lennox, get it? As in Annie?). Therein, said young blonde is scheduled to be lobotomized (this section of the film is set in something like the 1950s, when such procedures were more common, not that any kind of verisimilitude is of concern here), courtesy of a corrupt intern. Got that? OK. So the girl constructs this elaborate fantasy scenario, changing the asylum into a burlesque club/brothel. And in that burlesque club/brothel, she's the new girl among a lot of other attractive young ladies in poochy vintage underwear. And the girl, who's from a certain point on known as Baby Doll, has the power to literally mesmerize everyone in the room when she dances. And when she dances, she herself is transported into yet another fantasy (or is it?) realm, in which a wizened wise fellow (Scott Glenn, in a role that was no doubt conceived with David Carradine in mind) sets a challenge before her, which involve tasks such as slaying dragons, defusing bombs set to explode in cities located on moons of Saturn, slaying giant samurai, and other video game stuff. This is punctuated with philosophizing about how one's individual freedom is always in one's hands, and advice such as, "Remember, make sure your mouth doesn't write any checks that your ass can't cash." (Yes, exactly. Last time I tried to cash a check with my ass, I got thrown out of the bank.) With every dance session, another item is filched, and once Baby Doll has collected five items, she and her spunky pals Amber, Rocket, Blondie and Sweet Pea will be able to escape from the brothel. Which is really the lunatic asylum.
Usually I'm a sucker for Russian-nesting-doll what-is-reality story constructs. I enjoyed the one in "Inception" sufficiently to forgive the fact that the film really had nothing to do with dreams, as it had advertised. But "Sucker Punch" is so thoroughly labored, and panders so relentlessly to adolescent attitudes and fantasies, and is so thoroughly and stridently humorless, that it kind of sucks out your soul while you're watching it. The average male heterosexual might look at the trailer and say, "Hey, a bunch of attractive women" -- the co-stars include Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung, all appealing and energetic screen presences, to say the least -- "in skimpy clothing, kicking ass. What's not to like?" Seeing the movie, you WILL find out what's not to like. Among other things, there's the aforementioned pandering, which is incredibly blatant in the sexist double-standard department. The picture practically nudges the viewers' ribs, saying, "Guys who enjoy looking at scantily clad women are all drooling despicable pigs -- except, of course, for you out there, sport!" But surely the wackily eclectic action scenes pack some punch, no? Not really. They're largely acceptable, but hardly what you'd call imaginative, and the content that surrounds them is so labored and lame that at times you feel like you're stuck in a video game that has the worst-cut scenes ever. And did I mention the humorlessness? In a recent New York Times Magazine profile of director Snyder, it was observed that he's a "geek" favorite because he actually takes "geek" sensibility seriously. I'd say he takes it a little too seriously. Quentin Tarantino has a lot more fun, and brings a lot more active wit, to comic-book type material; Snyder is so ham-handed and fake profound he makes Lars von Trier look like Harold Lloyd. "Sucker Punch" turns out to be far more aptly titled than intended.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.