Combustible Celluloid
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With: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn, Richard Cetrone, Gerard Plunkett, Malcolm Scott, Ron Selmour, Alan C. Peterson
Written by: Zack Snyder, Steve Shibuya, based on a story by Zack Snyder
Directed by: Zack Snyder
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material involving sexuality, violence and combat sequences, and for language
Running Time: 109
Date: 03/21/2011

Sucker Punch (2011)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Girl Wars

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Zack Snyder is one of those guys that the publicity campaigns call a "visionary," even real life does not concur. His first movie was a remake of Dawn of the Dead, fine, but inferior to the original. Then came the insipid 300, where no amount of "visionary" could make up for the painful characterizations and dialogue. Watchmen was a superior comic book adaptation, which had a superior comic book as its source. I couldn't finish Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, which, again, suffered from poor characterizations. Now comes Sucker Punch, which is Snyder's first attempt at an original story, and it proves his strengths and weaknesses. He has a striking visual style, but it often goes astray for want of something more personal and emotional.

For about an hour, Sucker Punch nearly made me a convert. Snyder sets up his story in a purely visual, dynamic way as "Baby Doll" (Emily Browning) suffers through the death of her mother and sister; her evil stepfather has her institutionalized. There, the setting switches from an institution to a kind of nightclub/prison where beautiful girls are held against their wills and used to "entertain" wealthy male customers. Baby Doll meets Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Sweat Pea's sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung), as well as dance instructor Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino).

While demonstrating the sexy dance that she is required to perform for customers, Baby Doll goes into a kind of trance and imagines herself as a warrior defeating giant robot ninjas with a sword and pistols. When she returns, she finds that her dance has enchanted everyone. In her fantasy, she meets a kind of sensei/commander (Scott Glenn), who informs her that she needs five things to escape: a map, fire, a knife, a key and a mysterious fifth item. So Baby Doll cooks up a plan; while she's dancing, her four colleagues will steal the necessary items. The movie comes up with some effective mixes and covers of great pop songs to play alongside Baby Doll's dances/battles.

But then the trouble begins. Snyder dazzles us with the first battle, all artificial jumping and swinging and attacking, but though he subsequently changes the setting and the adversaries (zombie soldiers, dragons, robots, etc.), the battles more or less look and sound the same, with the same goal. One battle has a different outcome, but Snyder foreshadows this so clumsily that it's hardly interesting. Then, as the second half rolls along, he resorts to half-baked melodrama to move the plot along (one of the girls has a breakdown and confesses their escape plan?). Finally, the ending comes, and it's as obvious as anything else.

What's more, I found that, for a movie about tough girls and "girl power," it has an ever-emerging attitude of misogyny toward them. The men are in charge here, and they have the option to inflict, or not inflict, whatever damage they want upon the women. The fun begins to turn mean as you realize that these girls are taking more lumps than they're able to dish out.

While I was watching, Sucker Punch made me think of two other movies. Corey Yuen's DOA: Dead or Alive (2007) is also about a band of tough girls coming together for a greater cause, but it's a solid "B" movie, comfortable in its skin. On its smaller scale, the girls come out with more power than their "A" list counterparts. The second one, Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill - Vol. 1 (2003) and Kill Bill - Vol. 2 (2004) is also a fairly obvious comparison, but even though it, too, had a fairly clear, four-part plot, Tarantino knew how to instill dignity, emotions, and even surprises into his narrative. Snyder does not.

It's too bad that Synder's visual sense, and his clear action sequences, have yet to be put to really good use. Perhaps, if he doesn't listen too closely to the "visionary" hype, someday he may take a step back and put his energy into something with some heart.

Warner Home Video's 3-disc set comes with two Blu-Rays; the first contains an "extended version," which runs 17 minutes longer. This disc also contains two fairly dull, promotional animated shorts, and 3-minute featurette about the music. The second disc, with the 110-minute theatrical cut, comes with the "maximum movie mode" setting. A third disc is the DVD version, plus a digital copy. There are also trailers for other Warner movies and video games.

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