Zack Snyder is on to something. It was obvious with 300 (2006) and Watchmen (2009) that the former commercial director had achieved a cinematic style that would separate him from the pack. Now we have Sucker Punch to sink our eyes and teeth into – and it is dazzling for sure.
What Baz Luhrmann is to over-the-top, emotionally charged operatic ‘dance’ films (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge) and Eminem is to over-the-top, emotionally charged anger rap, Snyder is to over-the-top, emotionally charged action films. But as much as the intensely rich visual CGI aesthetic he has created is his calling card, the pleasant surprise in Sucker Punch is just how good the acting is.
The team of victimized heroines in peril are not just easy on the eyes but up to the emotional demand of the script.
Emily Browning plays ‘Baby Doll,’ a young woman institutionalized by her evil step-father. After the tragic death of her mother, she takes the blame for the accidental “murder” of her younger sister, thus cementing from the ominous opening that we are in for a decidedly anti-male fantasy adventure.
So be it.
Once inside The Lennox House For The Mentally Insane, ‘Baby Doll’ teams up with four equally abandoned, equally victimized, and equally hot orphan gals. Jenna Malone plays ‘Rocket,’ the brains of the operation; Vanessa Hudgins plays ‘Blondie,’ with reckless brunette abandon; Jamie Chung plays ‘Amber,’ the technically proficient but vulnerable one; and rising Aussie star Abbie Cornish plays ‘Sweet Pea,’ tough as nails with a heart of gold.
They are watched over by ‘Dr. Gorski‘ (Carla Gugino), their madame who serves as a buffer against the asylum’s sadistic warden, ‘Blue Jones,’ played with real panache by Oscar Isaac (Robin Hood), an actor to watch closely. He’s exceptional – and he makes a great villain – crucial to a film like this.
Veteran character actor Scott Glenn (Urban Cowboy, The Right Stuff, The Hunt for Red October, The Silence of the Lambs) strikes an interesting cord as the ‘Wise Man.’ His mentoring of the young women teeters into ‘Yoda’ territory at times, but he does provide yet one more narrative thread that elevates the material beyond pure action.
The story jumps back and forth between the bleak reality of the asylum, and a color saturated and wildly adventurous imaginary world that we glimpse only when ‘Baby Doll’ closes her eyes and “dances” for her master.
The adventure sequences are spectacular, both in imagination and execution (the visual fx credits list over 250 peeps). Cinematographer Tyler Bates’ varying film speeds and Damon Caro’s wicked cool fight choreography make our fab five females appear indestructible. Snyder’s choice of music is also effective. From “Sweet Dreams” to “White Rabbit” to “We Will Rock You,” it all works.
And it’s not all fluff and fury either. A strong theme of self-sacrifice runs through the narrative, giving Sucker Punch a virtuous patina that left me admiring the script as much as the gorgeous girls and high-octane off-the-hook fantasy action sequences.
There are a handful of filmmakers making movies today who have distinct styles that we have all come to recognize and mostly anticipate. Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, and Joel and Ethan Coen – to name my personal favorites.
Zack Snyder has crept on to that short list. Not so much a sucker punch, more of a blind side.
“And remember, if you don’t stand for something,” says the ‘Wise Man,’ “you’ll fall for anything.”