Writer/Director Zack Snyder, who hit it big with 300, has missed widely with “Sucker Punch” his Frank Miller inspired comic original. This comic book cabaret is a movie that not even a 30 year old fanboy, living in his mother’s basement, could love.
Taking place within a world of lobotomized imagination, “Sucker Punch” is an escape story at its core. When Baby Doll’s mother dies leaving her an untold fortune, her evil step-father savagely attacks her in a drunken rage. In the ensuing melee Baby Doll’s younger sister is fatally shot by accident. In order to hide the truth, the step-father takes Baby Doll to a mental institution where she is set to be lobotomized. Once in the custody of the mental health facility, Baby Doll learns to escape into her imagination in hopes of escaping for real.
Prior to our screening a fellow film critic mentioned to us that “Sucker Punch” was originally shot or envisioned as a musical. I learned from accounts of set visits to the “Punch” production in Canada that a number of dance numbers were shot. And this certainly makes sense. The movie has the theatrical flair of filmed Broadway productions like “Chicago,” but without the singing and dancing. The ambitious concept experimented with here is to replace the dance numbers with action sequences. Sadly, that high-concept idea falls horribly flat, mainly because the action sequences are wildly over-the-top and are ultimately grim and unappealing.
When Baby Doll escapes into her imagination, it takes place when she is dancing in a sleazy club-like setting. But we never actually see her dance! Instead, we are instantly thrown into her imagination. The story is told on three different planes or dimensions: (1) the hard scrabble environs of the mental institution in which Baby Doll is imprisoned; (2) a romanticized version of the institution that appears lifted from the movie “Cabaret;” and (3) Baby Doll’s imagination that is filled with science fiction battle sequences. While the structure of the film is confusing and off-putting at first, it settles down a bit and becomes a rather simple women-in-prison escape film with fantasy elements.
What “Sucker Punch” needed was a bit more Fosse. The famous theater and movie director and choreographer Bob Fosse’s touch is all over this movie. And I’m sure, that Fosse, who died in 1987, would have liked the idea of this film in the script form. Like his 1979 Oscar nominated film “All That Jazz” a lot of the action in “Punch” takes place within the protagonist’s imagination. But where Fosse staged elaborate dance numbers, Snyder turns to comic action and gore. And this may have worked had more time been invested in making us care about the characters. But Baby Doll’s back story is told in music video format giving the viewer little time to bond with her and appreciate her plight. This lack of character development is combined awkwardly with messy action sequences that never seem to place Baby Doll and her fellow inmates at risk. And this does make some sense, because they take place within Baby Doll’s imagination where she can control many of the variables. But that has the effect of undercutting the dramatic impact of the narrative.
You have to admire the brazen style and flair that director Zack Snyder displays with “Sucker Punch.” It’s certainly different but that doesn’t make it worth seeing. One hopes that Synder’s next project the “Superman” reboot is more grounded. Ironically, one of “Punch’s” themes challenges the viewer to look inward and that all the tools we need to free ourselves from the bonds of an unpleasant life are within our imagination. “Sucker Punch” is a movie where all the tools of movie magic are employed adding up to very little.