BY ROBERT HAMMERLE, guest contributor to Hammervision
The ultimate tragedy about director Zack Snyder's much anticipated "Sucker Punch" is that it is an art house movie that has been mistakenly packaged as a mainstream film. From beginning to end it is an alternatingly foolish and mesmerizing contradiction. It is a post-feminist empowerment film wrapped in a soft porn futuristic video game.
From a superficial standpoint, it is easy to dismiss "Sucker Punch" as little more than a caustic exercise in female exploitation in much the same fashion that the Hooter's restaurant chain promotes itself. The five principal characters, aptly named Baby Doll, Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie and Amber, are as wickedly sensual as they are scantily clad. Think of Hugh Hefner being put in charge of your daughter's senior high school prom.
But it would be a mistake to simply write-off "Sucker Punch" on that level. Emily Browning plays Baby Doll, a young girl thrown into a dark insane asylum for young women by her sexually abusive stepfather following the death of her mother. These opening scenes, many of which are seen in the previews, take place with no dialogue. Accompanied by Annie Lennox's "Sweet Dreams," it establishes a somber, dark context for this convoluted film.
Once in the asylum, Baby Doll discovers that she and the other young female inmates are basically being used as a brothel by an impresario known as Blue Jones. They are called upon to entertain the high rollers who are invited in to what appears to be a re-creation of a Chicago speak-easy from the 1920's. The girls' survival depends upon their willingness to accept their fate.
Whether you respond to "Sucker Punch" or not depends entirely on your reaction to the moment Baby Doll is called upon to dance for the customers. When she finally reluctantly agrees, what you see is her self-induced trance that sends her into a futuristic nether world that resembles a monster infested war zone lifted from the barren landscapes that formed the fabled No-Man's land from World War I.
In this dream world Baby Doll meets a mysterious wise man (Scott Glenn), who purports to give her the key for escaping her bondage. When Baby Doll comes to, she is surrounded by the other girls who congratulate her on her (unseen) provocative performance. In return she takes several into her confidence while they plot their escape.The remainder of "Sucker Punch" involves the interaction of Baby Doll's two altered states of reality. In one, she and her twisted sisters battle mythical armies, zombies and dragons in pursuit of further clues needed for their escape. In their real world behind the locked doors of the asylum, the girls gradually implement those clues as they risk death to obtain their freedom.
The strength of "Sucker Punch" lies in several supporting characters. While Ms. Browning is tolerable as Baby Doll, she really is given little else to do other than pout in the real world and morph into a Carrie-Anne Moss clone from "The Matrix" (1999) in her dream world. However, Jena Malone, and to a lesser extent Abbie Cornish, shine respectfully as Rocket and Sweet Pea.
Ms. Cornish brings some much needed emotional strength as Rocket's older sister, but it is Ms. Malone who stands out as the young girl who is willing to risk all to free herself from forced servitude. As an aside, take in her performance in the savagely funny "Saved!" (2004), where she plays a high school girl who refuses to find comfort in Christianity. Furthermore, for you horror film fans, take a look at her wonderful contribution to "The Ruins" (2008), a startlingly scary film about dark secrets of a Mayan Pyramid in Central America.
In addition, Carla Gugino is also quite good as Dr. Vera Gorski, the psychiatrist who is supposed to be treating our mentally ill young women. She is quietly effective as a doctor who is also forced to keep the girls performing for the paid male guests while simultaneously helping them maintain some level of dignity.
Finally, Oscar Isaac is exceptional as Blue Jones, the handsome, creepy boss of the asylum who basically lives by the motto, "Perform or Die." Mr. Isaac is perfect as the amoral, slimy conductor of this trapped female orchestra, and "Sucker Punch" is all the better for it.
Upon contemplation, I think the reason that I liked "Sucker Punch" is that it operated as cheerleader revenge movie. Young girls are sexually exploited throughout our modern society with little meaningful objection on any level. Quite frankly, I see Baby Doll, Sweet Pea and Rocket every time I look at the cheerleaders on the sideline during the much acclaimed March Madness of College Basketball. What purpose do cheerleaders serve at a professional football game, much less the provocatively dressed waitresses at the above- mentioned Hooters, other than to give drunken patrons "something" to undress in their imagination?
While much of our dysfunctional political system preaches the concept of "traditional family values," the very same people abuse young women in the same fashion as Blue Jones. The redeeming value of "Sucker Punch" is that it shows these young girls fighting back.