Here’s the set-up. A beautiful young woman, Baby Doll, is framed for the murder of her little sister so that her wicked stepfather can inherit her recently deceased mother’s money.
‘Sucker Punch is an action-fantasy that has favourable comparisons to Pan’s Labyrinth and even Inception, with its multiple realities and blurred lines between fact and fiction. But complex it is not.’
Her stepfather then takes her to an asylum for the mentally insane and pays an orderly, Blue Jones, to forge the psychiatrist’s signature so Baby Doll (Emily Browning, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) will be lobotomised and forget about the murder he committed.
In five days the surgeon is due to perform the lobotomy. To cope with this horrific countdown, Baby Doll veers abruptly into an alternative reality where her situation is, if possible, marginally worse. She is now the new dancer at Blue’s illicit brothel-cum-casino, being trained to entertain the High Roller, who will be coming for her virginity in five days.
Inside, Baby Doll meets sisters Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish, Limitless) and Rocket (Jena Malone), whose parents were presumably keen gardeners, Blondie (a smoky-eyed Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung).
In the amphitheatre of her mind, her fellow scantily-clad inmates are cast as hardened hookers. Their psychologist-turned-madam, Dr Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino, Watchmen), is their teacher, schooling them in the ways of the erotic dance, so they can please Blue’s clients.
When Baby Doll dances, she realises she can sidestep reality again. She pops over to Japan where she meets the Wise Man (Scott Glen). He tells her she needs five items to escape the asylum, the final one, helpfully, being a mystery. Back in the brothel, Baby Doll enlists the girls’ help to collect these objects while she dances to distract the man, taking them with her on her fantastical jaunts. When Blue (Oscar Isaac) cottons on to their plans, she risks putting them in real danger, regardless of which reality they’re in.
Sucker Punch is an action-fantasy that has favourable comparisons to Pan’s Labyrinth and even Inception, with its multiple realities and blurred lines between fact and fiction. But complex it is not. Once the bafflement has passed, the audience can content itself with enjoying the bared midriffs, gratuitous bottom shots and Vanessa Hudgens in black leather. Nothing says ‘I’m over High School Musical’ quite like a well-handled bazooka.
Writer/director Zack Snyder is fond of the odd ridiculously large-scale battle sequence. Although his previous film 300 probably didn’t contain as many false eyelashes. Like Watchmen, Sucker Punch is highly-stylised, glossy and dark. But it also is aware of its own ridiculousness - the girls’ clothes get smaller with every fight scene as they bounce off walls and come back punching, all in impractical heels.
The dream sequences follow a template. The girls arrive where the action is, loaded with weaponry, and the Wise Man tells them their mission, spouting semi-nonsense like: ‘Don’t ever write a cheque you can’t cash with your ass’; ‘If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything’ and plenty of other ‘one last thing’ Columbo-esque warnings. Yes, it’s overblown and preposterous, but it’s also hugely enjoyable.
While Emily Browning is beautiful and vulnerable, and Abbie Cornish exhibits brooding sulkiness with ease, it is Jena Malone’s performance as Rocket that really stands out. Her capacity for raw emotion is almost out of place amongst the corsets, fishnets and CGI backdrop, but it gives the film its much-needed heart.
There was a risk of this film simply being an excuse to watch women slo-mo fighting in tiny outfits. The men are all arseholes who objectify women and even rape them if they get the chance. The women’s response to this is to wear as little as possible.
But there’s no denying it does all tie together well, despite its absurdities. The girls kick ass amidst gothic architecture, war-torn landscapes and spiralling castles, beating up orcs, dragons and clockwork zombies. They are powerful, vengeful women and capable of anything – although this is a mixed message due to Snyder blatantly exploiting their sexuality.
The video game challenges, deafening soundtrack, the girls’ willingness to do whatever Baby Doll says, no matter how absurd, and some severe overindulgence, could all have made this film high-concept baloney. But it just escapes because it’s fun and doesn’t take itself seriously. It is weird, but whatever its faults. It is very, very cool.