Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sucker Punch - A Review

To save everyone the time of reading my cumbersome reviews, I'll start with a tweet-length soundbyte:

Sucker Punch is a caterwauling visual behemoth that raises some very dark ideas and then fails to address their implications. (that's 125 characters for those counting)

Now the review:

To say that Sucker Punch is excessive is true, but is about as accurate as saying the ocean is full of water.  The point is correct, but fails to capture the true scope of what's being described.  Whether it's shooting at a dragon from the tailgun of a B-25, or mowing down row after row of steam/clockwork German soldiers in a WW1 trench with giant mechsuit that has a bunny painted on the front, Sucker Punch is a movie that does not have any understanding of the concept of reining it in.  In fact it is a true disciple of the Nigel Tufnel school of going to 11.  This is fine, to a point.  A point that is crossed multiple times in the film.  A point that needed to either be addressed or circumvented with a little more compassion.

Since the release of the first teaser, all the way through the credits tonight, I've been ruminating on a very debatable point about this film, which I think, at the heart, is the leg upon which this movie either does or doesn't stand on.  Is Sucker Punch a) an exploitation film in the vein of Lolita-cum-dominatrix male fantasy or b) a feminine-empowering action yarn?  Depending on how you answer it, and your awareness of these thematic elements, I think will color your take on the rest of the film.  As for me, the verdict is still out, and I'm willing to be swayed either way (I'm curious what some females think about it).

Cleverly the story opens with the raising of a curtain and a quick slipping from a framed stage show to the movie, introducing us to the angel-faced, but as of yet unnamed heroine portrayed by Emily Browning (called Baby Doll).  True to Zack Snyder form the film opens with an orienting montage/credits sequence that is true candy for the eyes.  With very few words, and very comic-like frames (compare to the brilliant opening sequence of the Watchmen) we get the story of a broken home, a dead mother, her spurned husband, his revenge, and ultimately how our heroine ends up in the Lennox House, a mental institution for the mentally insane.  We're given a glimpse of the cruelty that is foisted upon her leading all the way up to an important moment that I can't spoil (though you'll hit it in the first five minutes) that defines how the story is told through the rest of the film.  As devices go, it's unique and allows for the liberal caterwauling that are the fantastic action scenes making up about 80% of the rest of the film.

And lordy are there action scenes.  As has been poured on from the advertising, these scenes are like somebody took a thirteen-year-old boy's brain on shuffle, picking random ideas and elements out in no discernible order or method.  In many ways it works.  Watching as our heroes fight through clockwork-German filled trenches with samurai swords and machine guns, while other members of this five girl team tear apart biplanes and triplanes in the skies above (all with astounding accuracy and training and grace) is a treat to be hold.  And in flagrant contradiction to the earthquakey jump cutting that ruined any coherence in films like Transformers, the camerawork is carefully paced and set to allow for a real sense of the geography and movement.  These action scenes have the imagination of a young boy, and I was put in mind many times of the epic games of pretend I would play during elementary school recesses.

This fantasticism is not without its issues though.  For a good 2/3s of the film there is never a sense of challenge or danger befalling our heroine and her allies.  They're able to pilot any vehicle that appears, jump out of planes without parachutes, disable bombs, and precisely gun down wave after wave of faceless characterless villains in the pursuit of five items that will help them to escape.  They take relentless beatings, thrown through walls, punched, kicked and maimed, but never fall.  Because of this the actions scenes are filled with more a sense of inevitability rather than the breathless sense of danger eluded.

But alas, it's not the non sequitur nature of the action sequences where the real, and very dangerous flaw of the film emerges.  Were it just a run-and-gun blockbuster the movie would be enjoyable, and ultimately forgettable until its DVD release and inevitable directors cut (the strategic sound effects bleeping f-bombs the first part to be removed no doubt to let the film revel in all its profane glory).  Its the asides, and the quick moments between action sequences that raise severely darker implications.

Upon entering the asylum Baby Doll immediately falls into one fantasy world, imagining the Asylum as a burlesque bordello for most of the course of the movie.  Doctors take on roles as Pimps and Madams, orderlies as thugs, everyone a grotesquerie of their real self.  The implication is quite disturbing, but is brushed lightly aside, by almost completely ignoring it.  The action sequences come when, already in this first fantasy, Baby Doll enters a second fantasy even deeper within, allowing her to "dance" for targets, while the rest of the girls go in search of the items they need to escape.  There are moments approaching rape, and abuse and serious psychological damaging that are brushed quickly aside in the name of action.  All of which resolve breathlessly with an overly melodramatic conclusion and "sucker punch" that didn't quite jive with the rest of the story.  Again, depending on how you read it based on my criteria above will really determine how you like this movie, I think.

All of this is not to say that I didn't enjoy the film.  As a fan of a good blockbuster I was sucked in, and whisked along on a relentless and ridiculous ride that I ultimately appreciated.  It was great seeing all the major characters as girls, and to allow them the strength, somewhat, to be the ass-kicking name-taking heroines, and that, while the girls were overtly sexualized, they weren't buxom or twiggy idealizations but rather petite, youthful girls.  I can definitely say that I recommend this movie.

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