If you had to explain Sucker Punch to someone—and I’d wish you luck in doing so—you might say it’s sort of like Charlie’s Angels, but with two more Angels added, as well as an infusion of Nazi zombies, airplane-eating dragons, various lumbering behemoths, and whole cities in flame. Which is to say, it’s not really like Charlie’s Angels at all. Or anything else I can think of offhand.
Few directors throw themselves into computer-generated fantasy with quite the wild-eyed abandon of Zack Snyder. (No, not even James Cameron—no hippies were employed in the making of this movie.) Snyder cooked up the story here (and wrote the script with a friend, first-time screenwriter Steve Shibuya), and it’s every bit as twisty—or possibly baffling—as Christopher Nolan’s fractured narrative for Inception. There are faint echoes of two of Snyder’s previous films, 300 and Watchmen, but otherwise Sucker Punch is a notably original vision.
The suckers put on notice are us, of course, and as the action whips back and forth between strange, fearsome worlds, we think we get it—who knows what’ll come barreling toward us next? At the movie’s conclusion, though, we’re told that we didn’t really get it at all.
The story begins in Vermont in the 1960s. (A notional 1960s, anyway—many of the environments to come suggest much earlier decades.) A young girl (Emily Browning) is committed to a dark, forbidding insane asylum by her evil stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). For dastardly reasons, he wants the girl out of the way, and he bribes an attendant (Oscar Isaac) to ensure that she will be lobotomized as soon as possible. The movie now becomes a ticking-clock thriller.
The girl—now called Baby Doll—quickly bonds with four other inmates: the beautiful Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish); her spunky sister, Rocket (Jena Malone); Amber (Jamie Chung); and Blondie (the oddly raven-haired Vanessa Hudgens). Among the regimens to which the women are subjected are dance-therapy classes overseen by a doctor named Gorski (Carla Gugino). Baby turns out to possess an otherworldly terpsichorean talent, and we soon find ourselves transitioned into a nightclub/brothel run by a creep named Blue (Isaac again), overseen by a semi-sympathetic madam (Gugino once more), and patronized by an exclusively scumball clientele. All of these characters are mesmerized whenever Baby takes the stage, and her dancing (which, amusingly, we never see) shifts the story into strange new precincts.
First, there’s a temple in what appears to be medieval Japan, where Baby encounters a wise man (Scott Glenn) who provides her with a sword and gun and tells her she’ll have to fight to be free. In fact, her first big set-piece battle happens to be waiting right outside the temple doors. It’s pretty wild.
Back in the bordello again, Baby tells her four friends they can all escape if they find five items the wise man advised they acquire. Most seem gettable. The fifth, though, has been described to Baby as a mystery, and when she finds it, she’ll be set free. Baby continues dancing at the club, transporting herself into alternative realities where she and her four friends—who’ve been transported, too—do all manner of battle with all manner of bizarre opponents. Much impressive weaponry is brought into play, and several tons of butt are kicked. Although it’s not really possible to fabricate never-before-seen digital wonders anymore, the acres of astonishment paraded before us here are at least consistently rousing.
It’s too bad that most of the characters undergo very little in the way of development—although given the tight little dance outfits in which the five girls are agreeably clothed, that might be beside the point. More troublesome is the ending, which presents us with a narrative flip that doesn’t really stand up under contemplation and is in any case willfully ungratifying. Still, when the dragons and the Nazis are weighing in, and the girls wading into their endless opponents, there’s really not a lot about which to complain.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.