Sunday, April 3, 2011


Watching “Sucker Punch” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) may feel like the equivalent of a frontal lobotomy. “Watchmen” director Zack Snyder’s bizarre, babes-in-bondage, fantasy epic imitates Terry Gilliam’s far darker, Orwellian, science-fiction satire “Brazil.” Like “Brazil” (1985), “Sucker Punch” taps into the fertile imagination--where anything goes--of an individual--a single, white, female here--before a doctor performs a lobotomy on her at a corrupt mental institution. This ensemble, female-empowerment, chick flick arms Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung to the teeth with samurai swords, sub-machine guns, automatic pistols, and attitude galore as they slash, shoot, and kick their way through a hellzapoppin' variety of “Heavy Metal” escapades with wizen Scott Glenn briefing them about each mission. Of course, their fetish costumes and make-up are as immaculate as the situations that they encounter. This PG-13 rated movie rarely grovels in blood, guts, and gore, and the crisply staged violence is nowhere as savage as “Saving Private Ryan.” Meanwhile, the adventures that Baby Doll and her accomplices embark on before her lobotomy will make you feel like you’ve been plunged into a swirling vortex of popular culture imagery. This imagery ranges from doll-faced manga-influenced comics to high-stepping musicals like “Moulin Rouge,” to strange sword & sorcery sagas with vengeful mother dragons, to actual events like World War I trench warfare with Zeppelins air ships that burst into high-octane orange explosions. The soldiers in the World War I sequence are thoroughly ominous-looking, steam-powered German zombie-cyborgs. Every time that either a bullet strikes them or a sword blade gashes them, steam erupts in pneumatic jets from their uniformed bodies.

“Sucker Punch” takes place in the 1960s. The prologue that establishes our heroine’s predicament blends the creepy look of E.C. Comics with gritty Hollywood B-movies about woman behind bars. Baby Doll (Australian actress Emily Browning of “Ghost Ship“) and her younger sister discover their mother dead in her bedroom. Later, Baby Doll’s wicked stepfather (Gerard Plunkett of “2012”) flies into a rage when he reads his wife’ will. He gets nothing, while the two daughters get everything. The furious stepfather decides to rape the younger daughter. First, he locks Baby Doll in her bedroom. Second, he kicks down the door to the younger girl’s room. After she breaks out of her room on the second floor during a storm, Baby Doll grabs a gun from downstairs to kill him. Accidentally, she misses the stepfather and tragically blasts her young sister. In no time at all, the stepfather has Baby Doll committed to the spooky Lennox House for the Mentally Insane in Vermont. Snyder films this entire opening gambit as if it were an extended MTV rock video. An asylum orderly, the slimy Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac of “The Nativity Story”), demands that the stepfather pay him $2,000 to forge the signature of asylum psychiatrist Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino of “Sin City“) on the form to authorize Baby Doll‘s lobotomy. Mind you, the stepfather neither wants for the authorities to discover what really happened at home nor does he want Baby Doll to receive her mom's fortune. Initially, Baby Doll learns that she has five days before the lobotomy is scheduled.

The first jarring thing about “Sucker Punch” is the abrupt change of settings. Once you have resigned yourself to watching a movie that takes place in a mental asylum like the one in “Shutter Island,” you find the setting shifted to a classy bordello where the girls perform exotic dances for the well-heeled customers. Each time that Baby Doll dances, she mesmerizes her audiences. She imagines that each dance is like completing a larger-than-life mission. During the first mission, she meets a sword master (Scott Glenn) who furnishes her with an arsenal of weapons to battle three gigantic samurai warriors who have piercing red eyes. Baby Doll behaves like an invulnerable heroine. She survives blows from these humongous samurai warriors that would kill ordinary people. Later, she makes friends with the first inmate/dancer when she saves Rocket from being raped by a porcine cook. Eventually, Baby Doll assembles a “Fox Force Five” unit of dames -- Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish of “Limitless”), Rocket (Jena Malone of “The Soloist” ), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens of “High School Musical”) and Amber (Jamie Chung of “Sorority Row”) -- to cavort in the strip-club fantasy costumes with a combination of S.W.A.T gear and samurai swords to obtain four crucial things. Sweet Pea is the hardest of them to convince because she is the most hopeless member of the quintet. Once they come together, they act like a team until the villains whittle down their numbers.

Three far-fetched, outlandish sequences with our glamorous ensemble carrying out a mission occur in the episodic “Sucker Punch.” Mind you, each mission yields rewards that will enable our heroines to escape from the dreadful insane asylum. According to Baby Doll, they need an asylum map to get past the guards. Furthermore, they need fire--in the form of a butane lighter, a knife, and a special key. Obviously, the special key is a master key that will open any asylum lock. Naturally, none of the imaginative, over-the-top missions that transpire on screen apart from those opening and closing moments aren’t remotely realistic. Compared with “300,” “Dawn of the Dead,” and “Watchmen,” “Sucker Punch” delivers lightweight blows, but deploys them out with greater sophistication. The characters are as stereotypical as the set-pieces are formulaic. Of course, our heroines are constantly out numbered. Ironically, our heroine surmounts her bigger-than-life obstacles, achieves her incredible goal, but she pays a dear price for it in the long run.

Director Zack Snyder immerses our ear drums with atmospheric chart-topping tunes for more than the sake of their rock’n roll cult status. This music propels Baby Doll into her different states of mind. Moreover, Snyder observed that the music thematically holds the film together. Listening to “Sucker Punch” is like grooving to golden oldies such as "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," "White Rabbit," and two Queen songs “I Want It All,” and “We Will Rock You.” Despite its one-dimensional characters and formula-scripting, “Sucker Punch” qualifies as a suspenseful, above-average, metaphorical, but downbeat fantasy about gals with guns, guts, and get-up & go!