How high you rank Sucker Punch on your list of interesting failures will be correlated to your love for the visual fizz of director Zack Snyder, the helmer behind 300 and Watchmen and the upcoming relaunch of the Superman franchise. “You will be unprepared,” says the advertising tagline for Sucker Punch. That’s true, unless you’re prepared to be disappointed.
Snyder’s career has strictly been about retreads to this point, but with Sucker Punch he tries an original script by himself and a college buddy. This was a fairly huge mistake; if starting superhero franchises from scratch were easy, we wouldn’t still be celebrating the big-screen antics of men in tights dreamed up in the 30s and 40s. Even Iron Man, fresh as he seems, dates back to the Kennedy administration.
As in The Wizard of Oz, actors appear both in grim, colorless reality and as different characters in a more colorful fantasy. Embedded within this fantasy (à la Inception) is another layer of fantasy, a spectacular land of imagination with giant robots and angry dragons and a lot of enthusiastic slaying.
The overlay story, set in the 1950s, is about a 20-year-old girl sent by her evil father to a dismal insane asylum that might as well be Shutter Island for hot babes. Her father plans a lobotomy to prevent her from claiming any portion of the estate that fell her way when her mother died, but before the cruel doctor (played by a tragically wasted Jon Hamm, the star of Mad Men, who gets only a couple of lines) begins slicing into her brain we find the mental hospital morphing into a theater at which the pigtailed girl “Babydoll” (played by Emily Browning) must learn to dance. She and four other nubile young ladies, overseen by a demanding but kind instructor (Carla Gugino of Watchmen), are under orders to learn sexy dance routines (as well as bedroom routines) to be performed for a repellent older male clientele.
Each time Babydoll is told to dance, though, she falls into a trance and instead of seeing her perform, we slip with her into a third universe, one in which she finds herself at a temple where a wise guru (Scott Glenn, channeling David Carradine in the old Kung Fu TV series, and maybe a little Kill Bill) informs her that she has the power to defeat all her enemies. She handily dispatches three fearsome giants in the temple and then we return to the dance troupe.
As the film goes on, each time Babydoll is about to dance she instead finds herself transported with the other girls (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung) to a fiery battle zone to receive instruction from the Glenn character. Each mission must be successfully completed twice, both in the video-game-like battle scenes and back in the asylum/theater.
For instance, in the first epic war sequence, we’re in a comic-book take on WW I, with the girls (clad in fishnets and bustiers, with heavy weaponry as accessories) trying to steal a map from a division of undead German soldiers. Meanwhile, in the theater/asylum they figure out how to steal a copy of a map from the office of the sleazy manager.
The WW I scene is crazy fun, but the two follow-ups don’t proceed with any kind of theme or thought except the seeming goal to borrow visual elements from as many fantasy blockbusters as Snyder can squeeze in. The second big battle finds the girls on a WW II-era bomber and the third puts them on a Vietnam-era chopper, but any suspicions that Snyder has something to say about the history of American overseas military operations are quickly stomped out by the parade of dragons and robots the girls so mightily conquer.
The more Snyder keeps amping up the action, with swordfights and shootouts and ear-shattering electronica covers of classic stoner songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “White Rabbit,” the less involving the story gets. The baddies in the set pieces are just a boring, interchangeable array of faceless, easily slain automatons. When the girls go up against dozens of silvery robots that recall both I, Robot and Terminator 2, it turns out these weaklings can literally be sliced up with swords. What is scary about that? These blast-em-all sequences become unforgivably repetitive.
After a while, I just wanted to get back to the asylum/theater, but the excitement runs thin there too. Snyder is completely incapable of, or at least uninterested in, developing plot and character through dialogue, so the dramatis personae amount to a noble innocent (Babydoll), a group of sidekicks (the other girls), and the sweaty, nefarious gang of interchangeable villains. One of them, a troll-like mayor the girls must dance for, doesn’t even get anything to say. Instead Snyder lovingly realizes the slo-mo descent of a clump of ash from his cigar. A major weakness is that the only antagonist who says anything much, the chief of the asylum/theater, is a major bore. The actor playing him, a nonentity called Oscar Isaac, doesn’t register as even sinister enough to play a floor manager in Casino.
Just to rub it in, Sucker Punch trails off into a muddled and downbeat final scene. We can only hope that Snyder is wise enough (as George Lucas was not, in the most recent trilogy of Star Wars movies) to recognize that he is a visual artist, not a writer, as he prepares to reboot Superman.