Too weird to live and too rare to die – Sucker Punch review

Sucker Punch – Starring Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish and Oscar Isaac. Directed by Zack Snyder. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

Sucker Punch is a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie; a cinematic abomination and a sin against nature. It is a one-legged, six-eyed, many-tentacled mutant that has seemingly slipped out of the crevasses of writer/director Zack Snyder’s brain folds and, unable to adjust to the socially acceptable atmosphere of good taste and filmic cohesion, has burst and splattered its guts across our cinema screens. Too weird to live and too rare to die. It will be played as a double feature with Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales for years to come, with audience members chirpily reciting the campy, cheesy, oddball lines of dialogue, and whooping in glee at its reckless abandon. I’ll be right there with them. Sucker Punch may not be a very good movie (in fact, it’s probably quite bad), but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.

But first, a comment on the state of Hollywood today. Snyder is a director with juice. His first three features (Dawn of the Dead, 300, and to a lesser extent Watchmen) were big enough box office hits to warrant a more-than-decent-sized budget for a nutso film like Sucker Punch. It was likely only given the green light because the allure of another Snyder-stamped slow-motion money-spinner proved too great to resist. Had a writer – with no previous credits or successes to their names – shown this script to their agent, they would have been advised to burn it and never speak of it again. Only a director with as much juice as Snyder could convince a studio to fund the regurgitation of his own Id. Sucker Punch is a comic-book-movie not based on a comic book, and comprised of everything the filmmaker presumably thinks is cool, including (but not limited to) scantily clad schoolgirls, steampunk Nazi zombies, fire-breathing dragons, terrorist robots, Scott Glenn, WW1-style dogfights, My Chemical Romance music videos, anime, machine-gun-toting ninjas, The Legend of Zelda and erotic-dancing-as-a-metaphor-for-self-expression. A friend described it as “ten teenage boys engaging in self-abuse onto a copy of Halo”. I had to clean up the language a little, but you get the point.

Southland Tales was also a film from a director with juice; following-up the financially unsuccessful yet zeitgeist capturing Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly was afforded the opportunity to craft a movie with whatever he liked. And, just as Snyder does here, he made a film with everything he liked. Both films are messy, incomprehensible and filled with riddles that cannot – and perhaps need not – be unraveled. But I find their absolute boldness of spirit (and yes, misguided adolescent foolishness) to be wildly enjoyable. When a filmmaker is given a chance to unload their innermost desires onto the screen, the resulting product is often terrible, but also a priceless insight into the artist’s mind. I wouldn’t trade either film for a 1000 competent ones. Sucker Punch is a cacophonous collision of sound, fury and sexist faux-female-empowerment, but Snyder’s intentions do not seem malicious; it’s like he wants to make a genuinely powerful piece of cinema about the human spirit that is, at the same time, a ridiculously absurd teen fantasy. He gets the latter part right.

The plot, as best as I could make it out: a young girl – occasionally referred to as Baby Doll (Emily Browning) – accidentally kills her sister while trying to protect her from their abusive stepfather (ouch, backfire). Sent to an insane asylum, she is told by a corrupt orderly (Oscar Isaac) she has five days until a doctor (Jon Hamm) will give her a good old lobotomisin’. Sudden cut! We are now in a 1940s era bordello run by the pencil-moustached orderly (now a gangster). Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino) teaches the girls (not-so-coincidentally, the same girls from the asylum) to use the art of dancing to escape their horrible existence. Baby Doll does just that, and creates a universe in which she and her fellow ‘inmates’ Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Amber (Jamie Chung) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) face off against many of the aforementioned beasties in an attempt to escape their numerous realities of persecution. Or something.

Snyder trades in fetishes. Dawn of the Dead fetishised zombie-killing. 300 fetishised nationalism. Watchmen fetishised superheroes with fetishes. Legend of the Guardians … well, that movie is just as weird as this one. Sucker Punch doesn’t fetishise action movies so much as it does movie musicals and video games. Snyder uses the brothel/prison scenarios (and outfits) from Moulin Rouge and Chicago, and structures his pacing around extended musical sequences. He then layers his film, Inception-style, like a RPG. There are multiple levels, each representing a different layer of reality. There are tasks to accomplish, objects to recover, and big bosses to defeat. Everything is taken to its logical (read: sexual) conclusion. This would all be incredibly annoying and offensive and impossible to endure if Snyder wasn’t so earnest. He wears his heart on his sleeve, which is kind of endearing (especially after his brutal, nihilistic previous films). Another saving grace is his visual style; although copy-and-pasted from countless other sources, this flick has a number of incredibly gorgeous sequences. My critic-self should have known better, but the teenager in me couldn’t stifle the smiles as I watched the teensy Browning dispatch giant, lumbering, terracotta warriors with a samurai sword and handgun.

As you don’t need to be told, there are films that are good-bad, bad-bad, and, rarest of all, wonderful-bad. Whereas Red Riding Hood featured hilariously awful dialogue (good-bad) and Battle Los Angeles similarly paid tribute to video-game shooters, only to fail miserably (bad-bad), neither of them match Snyder’s stream-of-consciousness disasterpiece Sucker Punch (wonderful-bad). Is it is smart as it thinks it is? Not at all. Is it fun? Absolutely. Snyder fuses together each and every one of his pop-culture influences into a messy, weird and derivative smorgasbord of visual delight. He’s aided by a solid (and game) cast. In ten years time, once smarter devotees and connoisseurs than I have watched it multiple times and finally figured out what the hell is going on, they will be able to provide a thoughtful analysis and defence of Sucker Punch. In the meantime, I must relent and admit that I enjoyed it like a good old fashioned exploitation flick, and not one of those self-aware ones that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez love to make. It’s a combination of countless jarring elements that somehow works – and most importantly entertains – always in spite of itself.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Sucker Punch is now showing in cinemas across Australia.

4 Responses to “Too weird to live and too rare to die – Sucker Punch review”

  1. I have to admit, I’ve heard some terrible therrible things about this film. And your review doesn’t really refute any of those claims. Somehow it still makes me want to see the film. I’ve roped together a group of friends to see it tonight, but this may be the last time they trust a recommendation I’ve made.

    (I’m still on shaky ground after ‘Idle Hands’, which I still maintain is hilarious and enjoyable)

  2. Nice review Simon. I saw this film on the weekend and your view pretty much sums up my thoughts but i’m not as good at expressing them as you. Here’s the last few paragraphs from my own review blog….would love to know what you think

    “Largely incoherent and slap-dash this film is a bit of a head case itself. At times it’s like “300” with chicks, which is ok if that’s all it was (a straight up action film), but the way it jumps back and forth and around in circles, Inception it is not. The concept and art design is actually kinda cool and could have been delivered as a fantasy film about 5 bad-ass chicks who kick ass in some alternate world. Instead, it fails in delivering what is a very simple and oft-told tale of redemption through sacrifice. For starters why should she (of all people) sacrifice anything? She was the innocent in all of this. The painfully simple quest storyline also feels like it was ripped out of the pages of a kid’s book and then toyed with by a gun-nut!

    Zack Snyder certainly has a unique visual style and creative mind when it comes to action to-the-max, but what is lacking is a purpose behind the off-the-wall fight sequences. Here it seems like absurdist manga/soft porn masquerading as girl power. As a feature length film this needed more time spent on getting the story right and less time in the effects lab.

    An over-the-top actioner that is a jumble of ideas and ultimately a little disappointing.”

  3. one of the maddest and yes stpidest films ever but… its FANTASTIC because of it. its just shameless fun which is pretty rare to see these days

  4. A good plot line should balance the dark elements with the light elements to make the movie a bearable viewing experience. I thought the way that Sucker Punch revelled in the dark elements: the hopeless, violent and depraved, tipped it over into an almost unbearable experience. Maybe if it had a happier, more empowering ending it would have been a great movie. This review is right though, I can see how some people find the movie entertaining – it was just a bit too disturbing for me.

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