I’ve never thought of director Zack Snyder (“300”, “Watchmen”) as an experimental filmmaker, but his latest, “Sucker Punch” (Japan title: “Angel Wars”), seems like some sort of conceptual art prank. The experiment seems to have been as follows: Send some staff to San Diego’s Comic-Con, survey 100 random fanboys as to what they think is “cool”, and then attempt to stuff all that crap into one film.
Thus, “Sucker Punch” features not only sexy serafuku schoolgirls with samurai swords and gas mask-clad zombie German storm troopers, but fire-breathing dragons, giant robotic battle armor, wisdom-dispensing sages, snarling orcs, lingerie-clad bordello babes, monstrously phallic machine guns and, of course, French maid-costumed girls on their knees. It’s the triple-chocolate-chunk ice cream of geek movies.
The problem, of course, is how to get all this stuff in there with a plot that makes some sort of sense. The answer: Don’t even bother. Snyder, fashioning a Russian doll of fantasies within fantasies, simply skips along from one action sequence to the next, with the flimsiest of plot lines to hang them on. The resulting film plays like some sort of demented mash-up of “Kill Bill” and “Burlesque,” with nods to “Shock Corridor”, “Brazil” and a generation’s worth of video games such as “Killzone.”
“Sucker Punch” opens with a sequence that has Snyder doing what he does best — purely visual cinema — with each shot a creative exercise in and of itself (much as he did in the opening of “Watchmen”). We meet a young teen girl, Baby Doll (Emily Browning), who violently resists her evil stepfather’s incestuous advances, after which he has her committed to a horrific mental hospital. The corrupt warden promises to have her lobotomized within five days. Baby Doll is put in the “theater”, where the female inmates purge their traumas through stage productions.
The film then jumps suddenly into its next level of reality: Here, Baby Doll is a prisoner in an upscale bordello, where she is trying to organise the other dancers/call girls — Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie and Amber — into attempting an escape. In keeping with the video-game logic of the film, she needs to acquire four things to escape: a key, a map, a knife and fire. (Which sounds rather like “Pirates of the Caribbean.”)
The dancers’ mama-san, Mme. Gorski (Carla Gugino, in the role Cher occupied in “Burlesque”), forces Baby Doll to dance for their clients; when Baby Doll does, she enters into some sort of trance state, which means an abrupt cut into yet another level of fantasy, this one consisting of the money shots: giant samurai golems in a temple courtyard (a massive rip from Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”), female commandos on a steam-punk World War I trench raid, and a battle on a runaway train against a legion of Terminator-like androids. Present in all these scenes is Wise Man — played by Scott Glenn, but you’ll swear it’s David Carradine from “Kill Bill” — spewing random fortune-cookie wisdom such as: “If you can’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
Snyder’s tricky use of levels within levels echoes “Inception” — a fanboy fave — and while it (mercifully) doesn’t take itself as seriously, it makes even less sense. Why a dancer would visualize scenes of combat and carnage to help her perform erotic dances is beyond me. A brothel full of captive babes in Victoria’s Secret seems less the fantasy of a sexually abused teen than that of a sexually frustrated filmmaker. (Yet despite the buildup around Baby Doll’s ability to utterly entrance men with her dancing, Snyder never actually gives us a scene of her dancing, an opportunity Robert Rodriguez would have seized with both hands.
A bigger problem is that the epic action sequences seem almost entirely disconnected from the actual plot about escape from the asylum. And while more and more filmmakers are embracing 3-D, Snyder seems to be moving in the opposite direction, giving us painfully one-dimensional characters. It’s hard to care about any of them, and “Sucker Punch” becomes a hollow experience indeed.
Snyder remains an aggressively creative filmmaker in visual terms — check the closeup where a snowflake dissolves on Baby Doll’s eyelash as she wakes up in another world, or that lobotomy spike creeping ever closer to her eyeball in the climax — but this film proves he’s no screenwriter. The only sucker in “Sucker Punch” is the person who bought the ticket.