Warner Bros. // 2011 // 127 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // June 28th, 2011
You will be unprepared.
After four successful adaptations of previous source material -- including one remake (Dawn of the Dead), two comic book adaptations (300 and Watchmen) and a film based on a children's book (Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole) -- "visionary" director Zack Snyder finally delivered his first original film with 2011's Sucker Punch. The result was his first major box office disappointment and a pummeling from critics, who were quick to call it one of the worst movies of the year.
Now, Sucker Punch arrives on Blu-ray (with an extended cut, no less) to answer the question: Is it as bad as everyone says?
After the accidental death of her sister, Babydoll (Emily Browning, The Uninvited) is carted off to an institution by her abusive stepfather, where she quickly escapes into a fantasy world several levels deep in order to cope with her surroundings. On one level, she's a dancer in a brothel, alongside other tough girls Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish, Stop Loss), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone, Donnie Darko), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens, High School Musical 3) and Amber (Jamie Chung, Sorority Row). Their madam and dance instructor, the heavily-accented Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino, Elektra Luxx), teaches them how to use their dancing and sexuality as a weapon against men -- something that Babydoll proves to be more adept at than most. During her hypnotic dance routines, she disassociates herself into a second level of fantasy -- one in which her and girls and true warriors fighting for the items (a map, a knife, a lighter and a key) that will grant them their freedom from the brothel. Assisting them (if you can call it that) is a Wise Man (Scott Glenn, Backdraft); opposing them is Blue (Oscar Isaac, Body of Lies), a gangster, pimp and owner of the brothel (who, in the "reality" of the film, is an orderly at the institution who sells the girls out for sex). Babydoll has only five days to escape before she's paid a visit from the High Roller (Jon Hamm, The Town). After that, she will never be free.
Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch is likely to be the most polarizing movie of the year, and possibly the most misunderstood. Some critics dismissed it for being juvenile and hollow -- it was just writer/director Zack Snyder picking and choosing all the things he thinks are cool and scrambling them together on screen. Some critics dug a little deeper and found that what they considered the movie's messages of female empowerment as told through nubile young ladies swinging swords and shooting guns left a bad taste. I won't say those people are wrong, because everyone reads the film in his or her own way. I will say that I found much more going on beneath the surface of Sucker Punch than many critics were willing to see or admit, and that, for me, it's a fascinating, troubling, even personal movie.
Sucker Punch is one of my favorite kinds of movie, and the kind of movie I'm forever championing to those who will listen: the Ambitious Mess. It's the kind of movie that's not afraid to take big chances, to work out some big ideas and to possibly turn some people off in the interest of creating something unique and thought-provoking. It doesn't all work, of course (because how could it?), but I'd rather see a movie that overreaches and comes up short than a movie that's happy to be competently mediocre. Though I've liked each of his movies for different reasons, this is movie that really tells me who Zack Snyder is not just as a filmmaker, but as a person: it's his fever dream, his mash-up of obsessions from sci-fi and kung-fu movies to video games to anime. He's not just referencing other genres and texts, though, but using the prism of popular culture to say something about the roles that women find themselves forced into -- and not just in the fantasies of geeks and fanboys. That's what I feel like a lot of critics are missing in their eviscerations of Sucker Punch: yes, a movie that suggests women are empowered by putting on sexy lingerie and fighting with swords is hypocritical and dishonest. That's not what Sucker Punch is about. That's what Tomb Raider and Resident Evil and countless other genre movies, comics and video games are about. To understand Sucker Punch, you have to be willing to look a few steps beyond just the images that Snyder creates. It's a movie about fighting a losing battle. About using every tool at your disposal, be it sexuality or physical strength or wit or the ability to band together to fight a common enemy -- the tool of Sisterhood -- and about how that still isn't enough. It's a dark message, and not one that the audience for this movie -- which is primarily male (who could blame them, based on the ad campaign) -- is all too happy to hear. Men can be very, very awful, and Sucker Punch is more than willing to examine that simple fact. Look no further than Scott Glenn's Wise Man character, who is the only man in the movie willing to help the girls. Unfortunately, he does so by spouting useless advice and empty platitudes before sending them off to die. His "wisdom" is entirely ironic, and yet he is still the one who controls their destinies. It doesn't seem fair.
Of course, I'd like to think the movie can also be enjoyed as a straight action movie, because Snyder knows how to create stunning, fantastical images and visceral kick-ass action (as any fan of 300 can attest to). The four major action set pieces of the movie are all genuinely cool and different, from the giant samurai battles to a shootout with steampunk soldiers in WWI to a fight with dragons to a clash with murderous robots on board a train careening towards some futuristic metropolis. I don't think it does work as just an action movie, though, because it's impossible to divorce the set pieces from their metaphoric context. The action in Sucker Punch isn't built out of character or even the narrative, since the movie barely even has one. As such, the movie's momentum is constantly being interrupted -- the fantasy scenes are thrilling and cool, but only work as standalone sequences as far as action is concerned. As part of the overall whole of Sucker Punch and as an extension of Zack Snyder's personal obsessions, they fit in well. Just don't go to Sucker Punch looking for 300-style thrills, because they're not there.
The movie is not without its faults. Though she looks like some live action drawing carved out of porcelain, Emily Browning is mostly a blank slate as Babydoll; the same goes for both Jamie Chung and Vanessa Hudgens. I'll attribute that to some sort of clever Verhovian casting, in which their blankness and function as clothes hangers is very much the point, but even I am able to recognize that such a reading is being more than slightly apologist. Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish fare much better, coming off as tough and strong without simply playing "butch;" Cornish, in particular, seems ready to headline her own action movie. Get on that, Hollywood. Much of the narration is nonsensical, and the film's closing words are pretentious and hollow -- for a movie with as much to unpack as Sucker Punch (and it really does reward repeat viewings, if you'll give it the chance), the message is far too simplistic and on-the-nose. Snyder's strengths are more suited to visual storytelling than screenwriting (he co-wrote the movie with Steve Shibuya), and while I think there are a lot of truly transgressive ideas built into the movie, he rarely finds the best way to communicate them through dialogue. It's a movie that could work just as well with the sound turned off, where just the stunning visuals and ideas can play out.
Even viewers who don't buy into Zack Snyder's vision in Sucker Punch will find plenty to like with the Blu-ray release. Two different cuts, the original theatrical cut and an R-rated "extended" cut that runs 17 minutes longer, are presented on two different discs (a single disc edition, featuring only the theatrical cut, is also available). The differences between the cuts are not monumental, mostly consisting of more action and violence in the four fantasy action sequences. The "Love is the Drug" musical number, which ran during the closing credits in the theatrical cut, has been reinstated into the movie, and while it's very entertaining and helps further establish the out-thereness of Snyder's movie (A dance number? Why not!), if you really start to think about it, the major metaphor of the brothel starts to crumble in the sequence. An extended scene with Jon Hamm's High Roller has also been added back in near the end of the film, and that sequence actually does improve the denouement quite a bit -- what made little sense in the theatrical cut works much better with this scene back in place. I wouldn't say the extended cut of Sucker Punch is a significantly better movie the way the extended cut of Snyder's Watchmen was, but it's still the cut I'll be returning to in the future. It works better than the theatrical version, but it's certainly not going to convert anyone who didn't like the original film.
It's no surprise that Sucker Punch looks incredible in HD, as the impressive visuals are how the movie was sold and are what Snyder has basically built his career on. The highly stylized color palette is perfectly represented and fine detail is excellent -- even if you don't like the movie (and there's a good chance you won't), the Blu-ray offers you the best possible way to soak in the crazy, beautiful images that Snyder has dreamed up. The 5.1 DTS-HD lossless audio track is, in a word, insane, and goes as far towards making Sucker Punch such a memorably visceral experience as the highly-touted visuals. Low ends are booming and thunderous, the music rocks and dialogue (problematic as it may be) is always audible through the blast of noise. This is the kind of disc that you'll use to remind yourself how awesome Blu-ray is as a format.
As was the case with Warner Bros' HD release of Snyder's Watchmen, Sucker Punch comes with what the studio has labeled "Maximum Movie Mode." In lieu of a standard commentary track, MMM is like a picture-in-picture guided tour through the film, hosted by Snyder. He stands in the center and talks about the making of the film while it plays on a screen on the left side of the screen; on the right is behind the scenes and rehearsal footage, cast interviews, side-by-side storyboards and more. A prompt also comes up from time to time so that you can click through photo and concept art galleries, then return back to the film right where you left off. It's a great, comprehensive way at going through the movie; rather than all of the traditional special features being spread out across multiple menus, they're all collected in the "Maximum Movie Mode" and you can view them all in roughly the same amount of time it takes to watch the movie. If I have any issue with the MMM on Sucker Punch it's that there are some extended gaps in which no new content is being provided and the movie is simply playing as-is. Worse, though, is that I actually don't recommend listening to the comments of Snyder and his cast if you're someone who appreciates the vague symbolism at work in Sucker Punch. Almost everything that everyone says is counteractive to the way I read the movie, making me think that the movie they were making isn't the movie I saw. The Maximum Movie Mode is only available on the extended cut of the film.
On the theatrical edition, you get a brief featurette on the cover songs showcased in the movie (several of which are sung by star Emily Browning) and a collection of motion comic prequels to the fantasy scenes. A third combo disc, containing both a standard definition DVD copy and digital copy of the theatrical cut.
I understand why so many people were turned off by Sucker Punch; it's a difficult movie to decipher and is filled with so much ugliness that people may react to it negatively and want to dismiss it outright. But it shouldn't be so easily dismissed, if for no other reason than because Zack Snyder has demonstrated his willingness to make a movie that's actually thoughtful and personal on a blockbuster scale. There aren't many filmmakers doing that anymore. Of course, the movie's failure at the box office means that Snyder will go back to doing adaptations-for-hire (he's currently at work on Warner Bros.' current incarnation of Superman), which he has done well with in the past. I hope it doesn't mean that it's the last personal movie we can expect from him, though, because Sucker Punch proves that he's a filmmaker with a lot on his mind and a lot to say. Plus, you know, girls fight robots and stuff.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Maximum Movie Mode
* Animated Shorts
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* Official Site
* Cinema Verdict Review
* Create your own Sucker Punch custom videos