Expecting subtlety from a Zack Snyder film is a fool’s errand, and critical response to that consistently extra quality hasn’t always been kind. But few of his films have been as reviled as 2011’s Sucker Punch, which was released to an onslaught of negative reviews – and is actually a lot more entertaining than you might remember.
Is Sucker Punch, Snyder’s only attempt at telling a story from a primarily female point of view, objectifying? Inarguably! The budget for fishnets, eyeliner and thigh-high boots must have been astronomical! Does the film’s solemn narration about becoming your own hero not really gel with its video game-like action sequences in which young women fight samurais, zombies, dragons and robots? Sure! There are aesthetic delights, though, in the fantasy world of Sucker Punch, and in imagining a reality in which misogynistic oppressors can be defeated by exploiting their own chauvinistic tendencies. None of this is nuanced, but it is as gratifying as the knee to the groin that protagonist Babydoll (Emily Browning) delivers to a guy standing in the way of her freedom.
The film’s nearly dialogue-less introduction establishes a Snyder-consistent color palette of dreary grey, sickly green and inky blue, and shows how Babydoll was framed by her stepfather for her younger sister’s murder and then sent to the remote Lennox House for the Mentally Insane. Nominally, it’s run by Dr Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), a psychiatrist who encourages her young female patients to act out their trauma to get over it. In the asylum’s “theater”, she says, “You control this world. Let the pain go. Let the hurt go. Let the guilt go,” and she genuinely seems to care.
But Dr Gorski doesn’t notice that head orderly Blue (baby-faced Oscar Isaac) is soliciting bribes from patients’ parents, husbands or guardians to control their daughters, wives or wards. For $2,000, Blue will secure a lobotomy for Babydoll, and a pair of gorgeous split-diopter shots communicate the horror of this. One shot captures Babydoll’s stepfather and her right eye, the other captures Blue and her left eye, and the combined effect communicates her increasingly divided mind. But just as the doctor (Jon Hamm) is about to perform the lobotomy, Snyder transports us into another world. The past 72 hours rewind, and Babydoll is back in the “theater”. The asylum is now a bordello, with Babydoll and the other girls forced to work as dancers and escorts for mobster Blue, who also controls Madame Gorski. Decked out in corsets and high heels, the young women are resigned to their fate: no-nonsense “star of the show” Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her wistful sister Rocket (Jena Malone), smirking Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and warm-hearted Amber (Jamie Chung).
They scoff at Babydoll when she plans an escape, but what they don’t expect is that Babydoll’s dancing will put watching men in a lusty, subdued trance – and then Snyder adds another layer of narrative, making a movie inside a movie inside a movie. Take that, Christopher Nolan! While Babydoll dances, she and her friends are transported into further fantastical realms, where their mentor (Scott Glenn) guides them in fighting various baddies and collecting elements that will help them escape Lennox. Each sequence operates as a mini boss battle, with Snyder immersing us in his trademark speed up, slow down, repeat style. An extra-wide shot contrasts Babydoll and a gigantic samurai, his oversized body sprinting toward hers on a sheet of ice; the camera whirls alongside the young women as they lean out of a helicopter to watch a medieval army attack a dragon; time freezes as Babydoll, Sweet Pea and Rocket leap on to a moving train holding an army of malevolent robots. “What you’re imagining right now – that world, you control. That place can be as real as any pain,” Madame Gorski had told Babydoll et al, and they take her words to heart as they fight back against seas of uniformly male villains who underestimate them at every turn.
There is appreciable simplicity here, in particular the self-contained nature of the story and the sub-two-hour run time, which keeps Sucker Punch from suffering the third-act bloat that plagues so many other action films (including Snyder’s own!). In the best ways, Sucker Punch reminds of guiltily fun video game movies such as Super Mario Bros or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: the solid soundtrack, including an impactful use of Bjork’s Army of Me; unabashedly cheesy dialogue, like the mentor’s advice of “Don’t ever write a check with your mouth you can’t cash with your ass”; and a guilelessness to the narrative that is consistently appealing. Babydoll, Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie and Amber have to get free, and that’s it – no deeper agenda required. There’s no denying that Snyder’s approach in Sucker Punch intermittently indulges the male gaze it’s attempting to criticize, but if you can get on the film’s wavelength, it’s a satisfyingly uncomplicated, enjoyably visceral kick in the teeth.
Sucker Punch is available to rent in the US and on Netflix and Amazon Prime in the UK