Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch is the latest in a seemingly neverending parade of action movies that masquerade their own soft-core porn tendencies with a cloak of unearned girl-power pretense. If the marketing campaign for the movie is anything to go by, Snyder clearly thinks that giving his five leading ladies riot-grrrl nicknames and the ability to operate heavy artillery automatically makes them pop-feminist icons. In reality, the characters in Sucker Punch are indistinguishable from one another, serving as little more than cheesecake set pieces created to please schoolgirl fetishists and teenage boys who still mistake constant sneering as self-assured sexuality.
There’s a plot (incomprehensible as it is) in there somewhere, but let’s not kid ourselves here; Sucker Punch is not much more than a non-stop T&A show, eager to shove as many pairs of lacy underwear and loud green-screen segments in your face as possible before you realize just how puerile and brain-dead the whole concept was in the first place.
Set in one of those hazy and indeterminate Steampunk universes, Sucker Punch tells the story of Baby Doll (a perpetually blank Emily Browning), a young girl who gets shipped off to a Vermont insane asylum after a calamitous incident with her wicked stepfather that results in the death of her sister. It’s there she meets the head orderly, Blue (Oscar Isaac in the type of role John Leguizamo used to overindulge himself with), who immediately pencils her in for a frontal lobotomy. Before the blunt instrument hits the nose, the asylum is suddenly transformed into a burlesque club and Baby Doll finds herself in the company of four other smoking hot babes in fishnets. Among them are Rocket (the punky Jena Malone), Sweet Pea (a slumming Abbie Cornish), Amber (Jamie Chung, Asian and therefore infantilized with a lollipop), and Blondie (Disney’s Vanessa Hudgens, whose hair is Snooki-fied, but decidedly not blonde). The five of them team up with Baby Doll to plan an escape from their captivity.
After a scene with Carla Gugino (doing an accent that’s Baryshnikov by way of Boris and Natasha) as a dance instructor, Baby Doll learns that her dancing allows her to escape into fantasy worlds that will eventually aid her in her quest for freedom along with the help of four key items. If it sounds nonsensical, that’s because it is, and it only gets worse when you realize that outside of Baby Doll’s mindscapes, her only true weapon is distracting male attention by shaking her hips and moaning orgasmically. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is not.
Snyder, the same guy who infamously dumbed down Alan Moore’s Watchmen and turned 300 into the most expensive movie about gay panic ever made, has an undeniable visual eye and knack for arresting visuals, particularly in the film’s chilling and near-silent opening segment. Unfortunately, Snyder is saddled with his own ill-conceived story idea whose dreamworld visual motifs end up borrowing liberally from movies like the Lord of the Rings series and Terminator 2. The problem with these scenes is that they’re never given root within the larger story, meaning that each meanders along tensionless without any established stakes for our supposed heroes. No ground rules are ever set and the formula of imagined worlds (involving samurais, zombie Nazis, bloodthirsty dragons, and cyborgs on space trains, respectively) quickly grows laborious as each plods along with enough slow motion shots to reach a triple-digit tally. The only segment that’s any fun to sit through is the one involving reanimated Nazi corpses, but even that manages to botch itself by confusingly soundtracking a WWII scene with a Jefferson Airplane song. The rest of the action scenes look like album covers of forgotten progressive rock bands of the 1970s.
Without spoiling anything, the last quarter of the film amps up Snyder’s already apparent taste for self-important babbling and free-flowing misogyny, so much so that it actually comes at the cost of whatever is left of the story. We quickly learn that despite the film’s constant “kicking butt and doing it in heels” grandstanding, the filmmakers don’t see the female characters as anything much greater than porn stars in corsets, regardless of how many men they kill or how many comically phallic machine guns they wield.
In the end, Sucker Punch is decoupage as cinema; an overstuffed stamina test of vulgarity and vacuity that will inevitably lead you out of the theater feeling like you need to take a shower. Or three.