"[Sucker Punch is] like Michael Moore's version of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. That movie would blow, and so does this."
The titular sucker punch refers to the fact that you, moviegoer, are what powers shallow, exploitative, CGI-soaked power-fantasies that dominate modern Hollywood. And that's why this movie is hard to enjoy, even when its German/orc/robot bodycount is in the hundreds.
Sucker Punch is tone-deaf garbage with very good intentions
A girl's mom dies, she is taken to an insane asylum named after the lead singer of The Eurthymics so that her wicked Stepdad can have her declared insane, lobotomized, and then collect her inheritance. The asylum is a grimy toilet filled with sad girls and corrupt orderlies that consider themselves kings. They keep saying when the girls are lobotomized, they see paradise. Twenty minutes into the movie, the girl called Babydoll is lobotomized for seemingly no reason by Don Draper.
What follows is a lengthy flashback told through a weird framing narrative. Without warning, the events of the previous 5 days before the lobotomy are related, but now, Babydoll is introduced as a "new girl," not at an insane asylum, but at a brothel, of all things. So what's going on? It's a badly-handled shift. Look, the workers at the asylum -- ostensibly the "real" world -- are re-drawn as 60's swingers and scummy club-goers. The girls working the brothel are mesmerizing dancers, we're told, and the dances they perform represent who they truly are when given the chance to create art. They lose themselves when dancing, falling into their roles as entertainers, all for the enjoyment of the club's audience.
When Babydoll dances, she assures herself -- as all diluted entertainers throughout history have -- that this, distracting the trollish, all-male audience, is power, and she is then sent to a world where, at least in her mind, she's a hero. She fights samurai in an absurd costume, using katana and pistol like it's time to Devil May Cry, and it's so over-the-top that you, the actual movie-goer, should make the realization:
This is satire.
A poorly executed satire, sure, but it's satire nonetheless. Between the art direction, which eerily echoes Unreal Tournament III, and the "How The Fuck?!" action, particularly during the robots-on-a-train sequence, we give it 2 stars. We can't in good faith recommend it though. To anybody. It's basically all for naught. Let's drill down just a little bit further into the satire, because it's the only thing saving the story. It sure as shit isn't the characters, but a story can be carried a decent distance on the bent ankles of "concept" and "industry commentary." Yes, it's a metaphor for the stupidity of Hollywood, but so were Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back and Three Amigos! and those movies wasn't self-important and were very funny.
This movie isn't good, but it isn't good for the reasons you'd initially think. Breaking this busted, poorly-acted metaphor down
Girl in insane asylum. The innocent goes to Hollywood, realizes it's an icky, insane, corrupt place that lobotomizes people if they cause trouble or stop being profitable.
The subconscious brothel fantasy. What the higher-ups in Hollywood try to glam up to keep the audiences coming back and "the talent" dreaming their dreams and dancing their dances. There's a jarring sequence when the worm-man villain says he won't kill the girls just yet because they're going to make him so much 'effing money. But at this point, are we still talking about actresses or a certain writer/director/producer auteur, hmmm?
The steampunk power-fantasy sequences. The movies "the talent" are told they are making, when in reality, they are actually making smut for the leering masses back in the brothel. Can the girls use this power to get what they want? Maybe. Is it empowering? Well, it's a mocking empowerment. Was it actually empowering to see Angelia Jolie punch dudes in Salt? No. And this is the same.
So it's no coincidence that the battles are bloodless, without consequence, and highly-stylized (/wink). It's no coincidence that these girls jump from battle to battle like highly-disposable working actors over the course of the movie. One day they're shooting an empty-suited, steampunk, (deliberately) historically-inaccurate World War I set-piece, the next, they're slaying inhuman orcs and murdering CGI dragons. Setting dragon-slaying to a cover of an Iggy Pop song is so blatant that it has to be mocking Kill Bill or any movie that thinks using obscure music for action sequences is hip. Then, it's worth repeating, comes the above-mentioned robots-on-a-train. And seriously, this scene is the "entering the Copacabana" of tracking-shot action sequences. We dare any living director from Michael Bay to Timur Bekmambetov to shoot a more jaw-dropping piece of ass-kickery. This movie treats action sequences like musicals treat elaborate dance-numbers. We just drop into them like pocket-dimension murder-soliloquies. They're the only moments when the movie speaks to the audience and goddamn they're good. Snappy, crunchy, hyper-accelerated and beautifully choreographed, like good bullet-riddled dance hip-hoperas should be. Give that one girl, Sweet Pea, her own movie, because she rocks the hoodie, assault rifle, and zweihander like it's her IRS-documented occupation.
She is self-employed and will have many itemized business expenses.
This film movie is a commentary on how we've allowed talented artists to become corrupted by the movie-making machine. Problem is, it has to become a monster to kill a monster. It's not a fun topic to tackle with a straight face. Somehow, Sucker Punch is a fairly humorless dry-heave, when we want physical comedy to be funny, but it's just gross to watch our friend wretch over a shit-stained toilet. For example, movies like Hot Fuzz manage to be comedic homages to the stupidity of Bad Boys II while sufficiently matching the action one-to-one. But this -- this isn't a celebration of thrilling cinema -- it's a dirge. We want to talk about Sucker Punch, the steaming-hot afterbirth of the 2000's.
We also want to talk about movies being compared to video games as a negative. Did you notice we compared it to a video game earlier? We did. But we didn't mention that we mentioned it (until now). Go back up and try to find the reference, it's in passing, but kinda funny, now that we think about it.
Go do it, scroll back up. We'll wait. Do it. Did you find it? Good.
Now, want to know why movies like Sucker Punch borrow concept and style from modern video games? Because modern Hollywood movies are artistic graveyards and aren't worth borrowing from. That's why this very film is throwing itself on its sword in defiant mockery. Today, imagination lives in interactive media, so to say it looks like a video game is a compliment. How is it that Quentin Tarantino borrows from shitty 70's exploitation grindhouse B-movies and he's called an visionary auteur? We're assuming nobody lives and dies by the artistic integrity of I'm Gonna Git You, Suckah! So how is the rambling, patchwork plot of Inglourious Basterds (sic (the rod up that man's ass has a rod up its ass)) worth any praise? His characters are matchsticks. His plots are vignettes. He knows nothing about story structure. Nothing he shoots could be called "beautiful."
Except the car chase scene in Death Proof. That's beautiful.
And yet, Tarantino's best moments are when he steals, so we take that back about Death Proof. He steals the spiky dialogue from snarky French films by way of blaxploitation. He steals the Yakuza gangster attitude from Japanese anime. Want to know a secret? Video games stole from Japanese anime. American movies stole from video games. Anime stole from American movies. Oh, shit! Inspirational ouroboros! See, the thing is, these Tarantino eccentricities aren't part of conscious American culture -- we give it some grace. Sucker Punch's school-girl, robot enslicing, Call of Duty fetishism is very much a part of conscious American culture. It gets no grace. It gets no grace because it's Apple Jacks, and kids love that not everybody understand why they like it, in spite of it not tasting like apples, man.
But Sucker Punch. Oh, Sucker Punch. You are, at first glance, everything that parents hate in their children. Sucker Punch is basically a problem child -- it's other peoples' kids. Parents love making snap judgments about other peoples' kids. Maybe the movie critics of Sucker Punch are meant to represent the parents that actually allow and enable these movies to succeed, or something? We're just stunned that nobody has made this comparison of the film-making industrial-complex -- it took us a while to see Inception as a metaphor for constructing a movie and planting a story inside an audience, and not many critics made that link right away. These people should go back to, uh, like, creative critique, college, for the film-watcher? Put it on a dog.
We've said before that Avatar is passable because of its audacious bird-flipping to accusations of being generic (it's a monomyth, assholes, just like Dances With Wolves, just like Star Wars, and just like The Bible). Avatar also lifts from 90's video games of all things. Those floating mountains are straight out of Chrono Trigger, which probably lifted them from a 70's prog-rock album cover by Roger Dean. You might call Sucker Punch a kid's wet dream. You'd be right. It's also a film exec's worst nightmare coke-fueled rampage ever. A bad movie about how they allow bad movies to be made, hurting talented people to make half a metric fuck-ton of money? With elaborate -- and unsurprisingly removed from this cut of the movie -- dance sequences? With too much CGI and no discernible script? Man, the dialogue in this is bad. It's video game bad. But the action is video game good, which is better than movie great action. Eh, we'll call it a wash.
Sucker Punch didn't need to exist. The only justification for its existence is so we could all have the black mirror held up to us and have it scream, "You're an enabler! Look what the machine does to cinema, to art, to critique, to talent!" It's like Michael Moore's version of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. That movie would blow, and so does this. It's like staring into a backed-up toilet and the only way for you to come to grips with a clog this bad is for somebody to smash the porcelain. And what a goddamn mess it makes. For all it does "right," it still doesn't "win." A casualty of war, this thing is exactly $7 worth of terrible. Here's hoping we've gotten all of this self-loathing out of our systems.
-- Alex Crumb (originally published 3/30/11)