And mostly what it promises is action heavy fantasy with a small side dish of titillation. Young Babydoll (Emily Browning) has been locked away in the local insane asylum after a family tragedy – women in prison, check. To cope with the hopelessness of her situation and avoid thinking about her upcoming appointment with a lobotomy scheduled, Babydoll retreats into a fantasy world where the psyche world is actually a brothel – sex with a dash of rape fantasy, check. In the fantasy brothel world, she quickly comes out of her perpetual stupor to enlist the aid of her fellow inmates in a plan to gather the elements they need to escape. A plan that requires her to enter a Zen fantasy world every so often in order to steal the items she needs. So, girls in catholic school and bondage outfits with swords, guns, planes and giant robots punching, kicking and shooting Nazi steampunk zombies, giant demon samurai, robots, orcs and dragons? Check.
Writer-director Zack Snyder’s (“Watchmen”) new action fantasy is an attempt for him to have his cake and eat it, too. He clearly wants to squeeze as many adolescent male fantasies and unheard-of, unrelated action set pieces as he possibly can into one film but realizes the impossibility of any story which could logically encompass all of them. Realizing that he has made an attempt to come up with a story to tie the entire thing with and create believable, empathetic characters out of his action scene props, but he’s not really up to the task. It’s certainly not up to the level of the cornea-exploding set pieces, creating a distinct start-stop feel to the film as you end up waiting through the ‘story’ for the next action sequence to begin.
What you end up with then feels like something dreamed up by a man on a cough syrup high watching a double feature of “Brazil” and “Caged Heat” wrapped around insipid koans about inner strength.
Part of that is Browning’s (“The Uninvited”) performance. Ostensibly the character tying everything together, she disappears behind the stronger personalities not just of cohorts like Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) or Rocket (Jena Malone) but from the villains as well. She approaches every moment with a sort of half afraid glazed over expression, looking almost like an actual doll. Which is sort of the point except dolls can’t emote and unfortunately neither can Browning; you end up at best projecting any sort of characterization into the person who is in theory driving the plot. That’s not a particularly good combination.
A lot of that keeps coming back to Snyder’s fractured conception for the film, which is unabashedly first and foremost a sensory experience and anything else a distant second. Large parts of the movie, including the scene-stealing fantasy action moments, are designed more or less as music videos. Whenever something particularly heinous is about to happen, or Babydoll breaks into what we are told are her unbelievably sensuous dance routines, the world falls away and we enter her mind as one of the big set pieces begins. Which combined with the brothel fantasy overlaying it all suggests at some point she had a brain transplant from a 13-year-old boy, so maybe her impending lobotomy isn’t such a bad thing (how messed up do you have to be for your protective inner fantasy to involve being sent to work in a brothel?).
The point of course is to evoke a visceral response and no more and in that it is completely successful. The action beats are well designed and well-executed, particularly once Babydoll’s cohorts get in on the fun. The adolescent draw of girls with guns is obvious, but on top of that there is enjoyment to be had by just how bonkers the segments are. Where else will you see a robot with a bunny painted on it duking it out with the Red Baron, or girls with machine guns sweeping through a castle full of Orcs like Navy Seals. It’s ridiculous, sure, but not in a bad way.
Snyder doesn’t feel comfortable completely embracing that, however, so we get stuck with a lot of interminable non-action scene bits which are given the same overly theatrical, heavy on the slow motion, light on the character hand that the action parts are. It works for the action beats but not the asylum/brothel parts and that’s a problem considering that’s supposed to be the heart of the film. An argument can be made that it’s only supposed to be a visual experience and no more, except that it’s not. Unless you’re making an experimental piece, movies are still overwhelmingly used as a tool for communicating narratives. And Snyder’s attempt to develop one around it suggests he realizes that as well, but he hasn’t delivered one and that failure thoroughly taints any enjoyment to be had from it.
Like pornography, “Sucker Punch” is the type of film you fast forward through the boring story parts to get to the good stuff. If that works for you, more power to you. For anyone who needs the vaguest whiff of substance, “Sucker Punch” is not for you.