Review: “Sucker Punch” (2011)

Jena Malone, Emily Browning and Abbie Cornish deliver a "Sucker Punch"

The line between celebrating female empowerment in ass-kicking action movies and throwing another bikini-clad heroine onto the already towering pyre of exploitation-based genre films has always been a very fine one. For every Terminator 2 or Alien that seems to genuinely celebrate the strength and beauty of women, there are dozens of Tomb Raiders waiting in the wings to stage a wet t-shirt contest in the name of girl power.

With Sucker Punch, writer/director Zack Snyder wants to have his cake and eat it in a mid-air super-slow-mo scissor kick while blaring a bad cover of The Pixies’ “Where is My Mind”. (…too.) While the film is probably an earnest attempt on the part of the notoriously unsubtle “guy’s guy” director to make a statement about how women are objectified and disempowered in our culture and entertainments, it fails to overcome the fact that it is still a big, dumb, loud genre mashup that fails to ground all the explosions and wire-work in human drama.

Jon Hamm wonders WTF he’s doing here (w/ Carla Gugino)

Sucker Punch is so blithely disinterested in making sense that I hesitate to even suggest that there’s a logic-based narrative worth following, but here goes: In an opening sequence (all slow-mo, of course – I swear, if you played any Zack Snyder movie with all the shots at actual speed, it would clock in at about 14 minutes) we meet a blond girl whose mother dies and whose evil stepfather is furious when her estate is left to her two daughters.

He intends on raping the younger girl, I think, so the blond goes at him with a gun and accidentally shoots her sister instead, and is instantly booked into a mental institution – without the aid of a medical professional of any kind, of course. Also, never mind that the girl is 22 years old and that her father would have no legal power to have her committed – we’re not supposed to notice these details above the din of the cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, the first of a dozen songs that are given prominent favor over dialog throughout the film.


The stepfather pays off an orderly to have the young woman lobotomized, which will happen in 5 days. Okaaaaaaay… We assume that this will give the girl time to plot her escape, but before that can happen we are suddenly transported to an alternate reality where the insane asylum is a brothel and the patients are dancing prostitutes.

Again, okaaaaaaaaay…

Emily Browning and Carla Gugino

The girls – who in this Inception level have names like Babydoll, Rocket, and SweetPea – all have to dance for their dinner, under the guidance of stern but caring Madam Gorski (the lovely and amazing Carla Gugino). In a Suspiria-style scene where Babydoll is forced to dance in front of her captors and fellow inmates – sorry, now that would be “hookers” – she has a panic attack that somehow transports her to feudal Japan, where she is told by Scott Glenn (doing his best John Carradine) that she can escape if she finds certain objects, and then has to fight off three towering samurai giants in a snowstorm.

I know, this makes no fucking sense.

But oddly, that’s not the problem here. I actually applaud Snyder for taking a gamble on what is essentially a big-budget mashup of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Moulin Rouge! – it’s stylized to the nth degree and operates completely independent of reason, which allows him to get away with an awful lot.

Abbie Cornish, do you need a new gay best friend?

There to help in his quest (because let’s face it – this is Snyder’s quest, not the characters’) are a talented (and of course gorgeous) bunch of young actresses, and also Vanessa Hudgens. As the central Babydoll, bleach-blond Emily Browning (from the not-terrible The Uninvited and that Lemony Snicket movie) does well enough, considering that the role asks her to do little more than look innocent and jump around a lot in a Sailor Moon outfit.

Tackling considerably meatier parts are Abbie Cornish (with whom I have fallen ridiculously in love) and Jena Malone (Donnie Darko) as sisters SweetPea and Rocket. Theirs is the real drama of the story, but it suffers from not being tied to anything real. Who are these women? How did they end up institutionalized? Are they actually crazy? And do they have real names that don’t make them sound like racehorses?

In an attempt to escape before lobotomization (at the hands of Jon Hamm, of all people!), the girls jump into various fantasy settings to battle their way to freedom. The scenarios are creatively conceived (dragons! steampunk Nazi zombies!) and beautifully rendered (the effects and action are uniformly excellent) but ultimately grow tiresome. Because knowing absolutely nothing about Babydoll (who is the entrypoint to these fantastical landscapes, via her dancing), it’s hard to believe that these creations are part of her imagination, rather than that of the filmmaker pulling the strings. If this story is truly about empowering young women to realize their own potential, why are the battles in their imaginations (not to mention their outfits) clearly designed by videogame-happy men?

Stuff blows up and also Emily Browning

Ultimately many things are shot/blown-up/sliced and the story reaches its conclusion, which is actually a bit darker than you might expect. Beautifully rendered chaos and diet feminist message aside, though, it’s all far too disjointed and scattershot to make impact. While Snyder admirably does better than most in his attempts to dig into the iconic female hero in all her complex, gorgeous glory (note that while the whole plot hinges on Babydoll’s ability to hypnotize men with her seductive dancing, Snyder never once forces his heroine to dance for us on-screen), it’s still a lot of sound and fury, signifying not much more than a best-selling soundtrack.

The Sucker Punch of the title may be the cards dealt to our heroines, who seem undeserving of their lot. Or it may be referring to the predicament faced by strong and serious women who enter the coliseum of contemporary, demographic-driven entertainment. Or it may be a sack-smack delivered to the many guys who will no doubt come to this movie looking to see women exposed and defiled in their quest and instead find a muddled message of girl power. In any case, if the film were just a bit more “punch” and a little less “suck”, it might have pulled it all off.


Sucker Punch is Rated PG-13 for lots of things going “boom!”, several instances of mid-kick skirt-hiking, and a shameful underuse of Don Draper.

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