Movie Review: Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves

Film: Sucker Punch
Starring: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oliver Isaac
Written by: Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Genre Soup, Chicks Kick Ass
Rating: 6 out of 10 / B-


Babydoll (Emily Browning) has been sent to the local asylum by her lecherous stepfather. After Babydoll’s mother dies, and after Babydoll accidentally kills her little sister while defending her from being raped by said stepfather, she finds herself at Lennox House for the Mentally Insane with five days until she gets lobotomized. Desperate to escape, both physically and mentally, she enlists the help of four other inmates: tough-chick Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Sweet Pea’s impressionable sister Rocket (Jena Malone), dark-haired Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber, the Asian one (Jamie Chung). As the girls evade the devious asylum manager Blue (Oliver Isaac) and the nebulous allegiances of Doctor Gorski (Carla Gugino), they retreat into a fantasy where they are workers in a brothel, forced to perform for Blue’s amusement. In THAT fantasy, they retreat even further, into fantastical realms of sword fights, sky battles, sci-fi and action, as they obtain the items necessary for their release. Then things go boom. A lot.

For his first non-adapted, non-remake film, director/co-writer Zack Snyder has taken seemingly every possible genre and trope he could find represented at Comic-Con, threw them in a blender, then put it on screen. There are giant samurai robots with machine guns. The girls fight zombie/golem soldiers in a barren World War I steampunk landscape. One scene features orcs, a castle and a dragon, but the next is full of robots, distant worlds and cities of the future. The barrage of allusions and references would make Quentin Tarantino’s head spin. In-between fight scenes, the girls dance in a strange cabaret that never distinctly falls into a specific era or time (it looks like the 1950s, but Madame Gorksi cues up Bjork’s “Army Of Me” on the reel-to-reel). And then, of course, there are pretty girls kicking a whole LOT of ass in sexy costumes. So, with all this possibility and action and variety, it’s rather disappointing that the film doesn’t work better than it does.

That isn’t to say that it’s not entertaining. It’s exciting, the visuals are hypnotic, and the action is a giddy, dizzy frenzy of guns, kicks, and blades. Problems arise, however, when we actually have to take a breath and have some dialogue. The plot is thin as tissue paper. In fact, it barely exists at times. It’s easy to forget about it, though; what Snyder (and co-writer Steve Shibuya) lack in narrative expertise they more than make up for in thrilling battle scenes. The characters are a hit-and-miss of dimensions, partly due to the script and partly due to the actors themselves. Some of them can sell the words, some can’t, and when the focus is on those who can’t, things grind to a massive halt and Snyder has to up the ante for each concurrent set piece just to get the pace back.

So who can sell Snyder and Shibuya’s words? Sadly, Emily Browning isn’t fully up to the task, but it’s not really her fault. She’s an expressive actress, and with her innocent face she engenders immediate sympathy. She’s a great heroine, and she acquits herself as best she can, but Babydoll isn’t a very complex character. There’s little to her beyond her motivation to escape. A lot of this makes sense by the end of the film, but during the film, it’s just kind of frustrating. Vanessa Hudgens can’t sell the film either, but in her case, she seems to be trying way too hard, perhaps while imagining that she’s on her own quest to escape her High School Musical reputation. Jena Malone nails it, though, and Rocket is without a doubt, the most interesting of the girls due to how Malone approaches the role: not too serious but not at all campy. The rest of the cast is adequate to good, but your mileage on that may vary depending on how much you like Carla Guigno’s Polish accent, since she seems to have the most lines of any character. She easily outshines most of the girls in complexity and allure, but she often comes dangerously close to Cate Blanchett’s Natasha Fatale impression from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Jon Hamm also shows up in a rather wasted cameo that never takes full advantage of his manly pecs (a high crime indeed).

But nobody truly goes into this film expecting deep characterization and epic plot. Or at the very least, nobody should. If you’ve seen the trailers, you pretty much know exactly what you’re in for. The film is, in ways both good and bad, a video game captured on film. It’s like an amped-up, balls-out recreation of a Final Fantasy game by an over-eager 19-year-old who’s had too many Red Bulls. You have your relatively blank-slate main character with a troubled past, aided by a party where each member has their own specific weapons and fighting styles, hunting for magic items to win the game. There’s a mix of fantasy and sci-fi, swords and guns, robots and goblins, not to mention heavy steampunk influences. And, like most Final Fantasy games, the plot makes little to no sense, even when you’ve cleared the game and can look back at how the pieces fit. It’s never as clever as it thinks it is, and when that final piece falls into place, you get answers accompanied by a whole host of new questions. Plus, there are often massive cut scenes in-between your epic boss battles that you can’t skip, no matter how many times you mash on the “X” button (and don’t forget those questionably feasible costumes).

But what boss battles they are. The film lives entirely on its action sequences, and those never fail to disappoint. Snyder films many of his scenes in slo-mo, a seemingly deliberate response to most action films where the fights are so confusing and edited so forcefully that it’s impossible to tell who did what to whom and where. Snyder lets you see almost every shot, every slash, and lets you know that these sisters are doing it for themselves. It brings a sense of immediacy to the scene, as opposed to urgency, and it makes it much easier to lose yourself in the action. There’s also a great soundtrack and score, including a few songs sung by the cast, that truly helps the film’s impact.

It might sound like I’m trashing the film, but it’s actually very entertaining. It’s never quite as fun as the trailers suggest—it takes itself a bit too seriously—but there are truly funny moments, such as the perverted stepfather being turned into a Catholic priest in the fantasy world. Snyder knows his visuals, and he knows how to pump the adrenaline on screen. It’s just a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t live up to the exciting spectacle of watching a steam-powered mech with a cute little kitty painted on the front mow down a giant zeppelin. Because let’s face it, that’s pretty damn cool. The film is worth seeing simply based on the visuals alone, but it helps to go in with lowered expectations on everything else. You also may or may not change your opinion of the film after some of the major plot twists are revealed toward the end of the film. It’s what dropped my rating of “7/B” down to “6/B-.”

Will I get the film when it comes out on DVD? Of course. It pushes way too many of my buttons for me not to. I’ll just fast-forward through the non-explodey parts.

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