Monday, December 19, 2011

Now groove, sucka! -- Sucker Punch (2011)

In Sucker Punch, the main protagonist suffers from a dissociative identity, in one moment occupying the persona of a 1920s bordello girl, and in another, becoming a badass super soldier garbed in fetish-y schoolgirl gear. How interesting, then, that the movie also suffers from a dissociative identity, unable to decide if it wants to be a look into the struggles of an oppressed young woman rebelling against the system, or an elaborate effort to see how much stereotypical nerd-wank director Zack Snyder can cram into the space 110 minutes, which is easily twenty minutes longer than it should be.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh. For Sucker Punch certainly isn’t the worst film I’ve seen this year, and, at a stretch, “works” the way I think it intends to. When all is said and done, though, Sucker Punch simply doesn’t satisfy me, and what should be a fantastic piece of escapism instead glides past my interest like a sparrow into a closed window.

The main plot of Sucker Punch concerns Babydoll (Emily Browning), a young woman put in a mental institution after the death of her mother by her slimy, sleazy stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). Stepdad bribes an orderly (Oscar Isaac) to have her lobotomized in five days’ time; that the orderly is only too happy to oblige is because, I dunno, video games didn’t exist in the 1950s and he needs a break in the monotony every once in a while.

After a yet more exposition, the setting changes, revealing that the mental institution is, in fact, a 1920s bordello, and Babydoll is the new arrival. Babydoll is told that she is to work in the bordello, dancing until the High Roller (Jon Hamm) comes for her in five days’ time. After a set of lessons, Babydoll discovers that her dancing is so wildly captivating, it locks everyone watching into a trance, and she soon uses her newfound abilities to concoct plans of escape. Helping her along the way are overprotective Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), tomboyish Rocket (Jenna Malone), sweetheart-type Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and introverted Amber (Jamie Chung).

They're like the Spice Girls, but with more heavy artillery. And misogyny.

What makes Sucker Punch unique, and what comprises its entire hook, are Babydoll’s dances themselves, which are not actually shown to the audience, but are instead interpreted as a series of elaborate fantasies involving World War I trenches, bipedal mechs, towering castles, zeppelins, zombies, Vulcan cannon-wielding samurai. It’s an impressive cocktail of otaku imagery, and the film’s biggest draw.

On paper, Sucker Punch looks like a breezy, breathless mash-up of everything Zack Snyder thought was cool when he was twelve—an empty-headed thrill ride meant to blow away the audience with its eclectic universe and bombastic action. In execution, though, it buckles under the weight of its own mythos, laboring far too long on affairs in the bordello, and generally acting as though the audience did not attend for the express purpose of watching a fishnet stocking-clad B-52 pilot shoot a dragon in the face with a small-arms handgun.

Seriously, for a movie that sells itself as a fantastical voyage into a patchwork quilt of fan service, it spends a healthy chunk of time (too much, in fact) on the plight of Babydoll and her four cohorts. Ironically, even with the extended character moments, the film’s treatment of Babydoll and co. never becomes meaty enough to become emotionally invested in; each girl has only one or two personality traits, and are difficult to distinguish between after a spell, leaving me to differentiate between them by their different hair styles.

None of the central cast makes much of an impression, creating confusion when they become buried under a mountain of CGI.

Hell, even the much-vaunted fantasy sequences are hard to get worked-up about after the novelty is worn out, due to its lifeless execution. Tearing through a wave of Helgastian soldier with the help of steam punk gadgetry and Modern Warfare-style guns-with-scopes should be damn invigorating, but instead feels tired, drifting from one shot of mind-bending action to another in the sleepiest was possible. Without the ability to sell themselves as fun or entertaining, the movie’s bread and butter—its set pieces—end up feeling like so much cinematic masturbation.

Which is a shame, because the action and scenarios are all outstanding ideas. Perhaps it’s because I, like Snyder, was also once a twelve-year-old boy, and can appreciate how Awesome is the notion of throwing together so many disparate elements of nerdy iconography. And while I feel like the fantasies could have been more exciting, Snyder does a good job of keeping the action clear, refraining from the jump-cuts and shaky-cam that many contemporary action flicks use as a crutch.

The film's over-the-top, nonsensical style is commendable, whenever it isn't suffering from its milquetoast action.

I also can’t fault Snyder for what he wanted to accomplish with the bordello bits, either. Wall-to-wall CG shots of pretty girls using martial arts and heavy firearms could get pretty tedious, pretty fast, and I dig the literal notion of creating a fantasy in order to cope with a difficult situation, but most of the chatter about escape and the High Roller drag the movie down like so many pounds of cinder blocks. Ultimately, Sucker Punch turns into one big game of Why So Serious, plodding where it should be springing, and effectively sucking the joy out of what should be a bats@%# crazy good time.

In truth, perhaps that’s the reason why I’m most frustrated by Sucker Punch. This is a movie I should be hard-wired to like, but its desire to be both a dour character study and phantasmagorical action flick bogs it down. Perhaps it’s worth renting in order to experience the film’s many flights of fancy, but don’t be surprised if you start inventing coping-fantasies yourself.

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