One day, Zach Snyder is going to do it. One day, he’s going to direct the thinking person’s action epic that will redefine what the genre is capable of when stretched to its new limits. He hasn’t done it yet. His latest work, Sucker Punch, has too many script problems to its final detriment but there’s a sequence about a third of the way in that’s convinced me Snyder has what it takes to achieve something lasting. Five young women have to clear their way through a WWI German trench line to retrieve a map from a courier before he can transport it to a zeppelin. And of course the girls are nubile as Maxim pinups, wearing not body armor but fishnets and tied-off shirts revealing firm midriffs. And of course the enemy troops are reanimated corpses running on steam power and clockwork, so the ladies don’t have to “feel bad” about snuffing them by the hundreds. And of course the lead female warrior, a surreally beautiful waif named Baby Doll (Emily Browning) wields a katana with one hand, a custom engraved .45 with the other, for maximum badassery. And of course her tough Asian amiga Amber (the hotter than molten lava Jamie Chung) pilots a battle-bot that can launch itself at will to bring down those flimsy Hun biplanes. And of course the whole shebang, running a good seven or eight explosion and full-auto filled minutes, is scored to a post-mod cover of that psychedelic marching classic, “White Rabbit.”
Sucker Punch is the story of Baby Doll (we hear her called nothing else), an orphan committed to an insane asylum after a tragedy involving her little sister and an abusive stepfather. Dominating the ward is a skeevy orderly named Blue (Oscar Isaac) and a progressive therapist, Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino, salivating all over that Polish accent). In exchange for a payoff from Baby Doll’s stepdad, Blue plans to have the new patient labotomized in five days time. But we know the diminutive blonde is more formidable than she looks, and so she plots escape with four other inmates; the small but tough Rocket (Jena Malone), Rocket’s protective older sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), willing but scared Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and the above mentioned Amber. To bust out they need to obtain a map, a key, a knife, and a way to make fire. It’s these missions to obtain said items that make up the bulk of the film’s epic action scenes, as we see them played out in Baby Doll’s considerable imagination. Dr. Gorski has the women use interpretive dance as therapy and Baby Doll’s movements are apparently so entrancing, they divert attention while the other girls pull off these jobs. It’s a good choice for Snyder to never show us Baby Doll’s dance, as that’s when she slips into a dream state where she and her crew encounter zombie stormtroopers, samurai robots, and fire breathing dragons. (Note that the women never go up against actual human adversaries, except in a couple of key scenes.)
Plotwise, there’s nothing new here. Anyone who’s seen The Singing Detective, Brazil, Shutter Island, Inception and scads of lesser mental and/or dream escape films knows how these stories generally play out. Chief among the legion of script issues is the fact we never know enough about these women to really care about their fates either in the institution or Baby Doll’s fantasies. Other than our protagonist, we never learn why any of these girls are committed as they’re all seemingly rational, healthy people of adult age. From the set design and wardrobe it appears the film is set in some sort of alterna-early 60’s, where the cars are always black and the skies are always forboding, but our heroic quintet look very contemporary and their accessory-bedecked automatic weoponry would be considered cutting edge by Navy SEAL’s.
Clearly, Snyder loves the idea of mashing up action staples and hardware like samurai swords vs. undead stormtroops, B-25 Liberators vs. flying monsters, and Vietnam Hueys vs. bullet trains. Problem is, after the bravura main course of the trench raid, everything that follows is a bit of an anti-climax. By the time the ladies hack ‘n slash ‘n shoot their way through a trainload of rather dull robots, the narrative energy has long since left the station.
Then the film gets DARK and there are a couple of story choices that don’t make a lick of sense, but damn if Snyder doesn’t have integrity. Obviously, hot babes in short skirts mowing down orcs is the picture’s selling point, but make no mistake, this is not a typical pre-summer action flick. Early on, a myserious sensei (the always welcome Scott Glenn) tells Baby Doll the last item she needs for her escape is a mystery, but it will result in both sacrifice and triumph. And so there’s a palpable sadness and sense of accomplishment at the climax that even the script’s more significant errors cannot entirely obscure. (However, make sure you rush for the exits before Carla Gugino and Oscar Isaac’s horrific cover of “Love Is the Drug.”)
Snyder’s best film remains his debut, 2004’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, with ‘07’s 300 a pulpy guilty pleasure and ‘09’s Watchmen a maddening but intensely watchable disappointment. Sucker Punch is Snyder’s first attempt to tell an original story (co-written with second-unit director Steven Shibuya) and despite his not inconsiderable misteps, he’s clearly making efforts – real efforts – to do something significant with action spectacle. I’m not sure his upcoming reboot of Superman is going to be the answer, but I know this; I’m buying a ticket.