Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sucker Punch: burly-esque

Sucker Punch is wish fulfillment on so many levels... (spoilers in italics)

I saw Sucker Punch today. Part of me feels like this should be the kind of movie that I see as superficial Hollywood nonsense, but really that’s only because that part of me doesn’t want to be manipulated by the cliché of chicks with guns in skimpy outfits kicking ass. It’s an easy play, the guys like watching the girls move and the girls get a kick of female empowerment, so it’s win win, though really I think it works out pretty much the same with a strong male lead in an action movie. And to be honest, I really do enjoy watching sexy girls kick ass. I’m not a huge fan of guns in real life and if I met a girl who was part of the NRA it would probably majorly turn me off, but a strong woman really can be empowering to watch, whether you are a guy or a girl. That is, if they are actually an interesting character with depth.

Oh, I’m sorry, did I just commit heresy? Will I be kicked out of the men’s club for wanting more than boobs and guns? Gee I sure hope not. But really, what’s more boring than vapid action heroes, male or female, who are nothing more that overconfidence and bravado wrapped up in a nice package of cheesy one liners and tight clothes? I can only thank god that if I find myself tricked into watching such a film that there will surely be an overstock of expensive cars being blown to shreds, as wrong as it is to be so decadently wasteful, to distract me from the train wreck with an even bigger, more literal train wreck.
But I don’t really feel this is the case with Sucker Punch. Not Really. Kind of. But not really. I guess it’s synopsis time, before I get any more vague and wishy washy. (Here come the spoilers)
The opening sequence of the film is both stylistic and intensely melodramatic. We get our first taste of the great soundtrack of covers with a orchestrated take on Sweet Dreams by Annie Lennox, while we see the main character Baby Doll (Emily Browning) sitting on a stage in a theater ( the broadway kind, though the opening does something to remind us that, hey, we are in a movie theater watching a movie) set that looks like a little girls room. Zooming in the set becomes her actual room and a drama quickly unfolds in a series of stylized slow motion shots. Baby Doll and her little sister quickly discover that their apparently sick mother has just died and fall crying at the foot of her deathbed. Their wicked stepfather opens her will on a following evening to discover that she’s left all her money, apparently a fortune, to her daughters.

Not surprising since the step father is such a bastard he probably had some part in killing the mother. He gets furious and comes after Baby Doll in a drunken rage, and after she fights back and claws his face, he decides to punish her by locking her in her room and turning his violence onto her younger daughter. Baby Doll valiantly climb out the window and down the drain pipe in the pouring, slow motion rain, but by the time she gets back in the house and up the stairs with a gun, it’s too late. The Stepfather immediately cowers but the younger sister is already dead, presumably beaten to death. She nearly kills him but spares his life, and since no good deed goes unpunished, he returns the favor by telling the police that she killed her sister by accident in some kind of psychotic freak out caused by her mother’s death, so on come the men in white suits to take her away to the funny farm.

The film seems set in some gothic version of the 50’s, and the mental hospital is the sort we’ve seen before in films like Twelve Monkeys and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, a completely dysfunctional and run down cesspool where the orderlies are more off their rockers then the patients.  Grime encrusted white tiled walls, chipping paint, and prisonlike rusting metal gates set the atmosphere. The stepdad shows that he’s covering all his bases by making a deal with the head orderly, Blue Jones, to have a specialist doctor come in to give Baby Doll a lobotomy and put her in “Paradise”. Baby Doll seems to have lost all her will to fight back and she drifts through the last few days she has, hopelessly going through the motions in the mental hospital, doing what she’s told. It’s a little soul crushing to watch, really. Then she ends up strapped down to have a metal spike rammed into her brain through her eye socket, and the doctor hammers it home.

Here the film shifts settings into some sort of alternate reality which we can only assume to be a fantasy Baby Doll is living inside her head after the lobotomy, though we’re not quite sure and waiting for the twist dream within a dream within a dream ending to rear it’s ugly head. Baby Doll is now the new girl in a ritzy bordello where all the big shots and politicians in town come to have their palms greased by a strip show and a night with one of the girls. Just like Dorothy in The Land of Oz, the bordello is a mirror of the mental hospital, with the same layout and inhabited by all the same actors in new roles. The head doctor of the mental hospital is now the experienced and exotically accented madam of the bordello, in charge of all the girls, but she works for Blue Jones.

Blue is the face of mafia-esque criminal operation that runs the town behind the scenes, and the bordello also stands as a front for running guns and drugs. Blue sees all the girls as his organization’s most valuable possessions, nothing more, and with a thin veneer of respect he enslaves them with the threat of violence, and the girls all know that if they try to cross him they are as good as dead. The girls all well acclimated to surviving in this world and have a lot of attitude, but they are slaves all the same. They take to Baby Doll like any close knit group of girl-friends welcoming a new member, by instantly assuming she’s too stuck up, making snap judgments and starting rumors.

But one of them gets assigned to show Baby Doll the ropes and Baby Doll makes nothing but good impressions. In fact she makes a big impression on everyone when the madam challenges her to show them she can dance, telling her after she freezes up on the first attempt that she has to do this to survive and her battle begins here. She takes the battle metaphor to heart, and when the music starts again she goes into a fantasy sequence, finding herself in the courtyard of some kind of Asian monastery or palace. She walks inside and finds herself before an aging martial arts master who would probably have been played by David Carradine straight out of Kung Fu, if he hadn’t passed on so unfortunately. Scott Glen play the “Wise Man” who asks her why she’s here and what she wants, bringing her to the assertion that she wants freedom. He tells her she’s about to begin a battle, and to win this battle she will need 5 things, a map, fire, a key, and a knife, but the fifth thing is a mystery and the real meaning of it all, where she’ll have to make some kind of sacrifice. He then reveals to her that she has all the weapons she needs right here (A masterful samurai sword and big shiny pistol). He then tells her to defend herself, and three giant demonic samurai step into the courtyard.

We know this movie just got serious when one of the samurai walks up to her and brutally punts her into the shrine, sending her a good 100 yards and making a crater where she lands, then she gets up without a scratch. Oh, it’s on now. We are then treated to a matrix style, over the top battle complete with bullet time flips over streams of bullets and massive collateral damage to the shrine. As always Zack Snyder shows off his visual skills in beautifully shot and edited, picture perfect slow motion violence, and it doesn’t hurt that the girl looks great the whole time. After dispatching the first one the second comes in with a giant missile launcher and chain gun, and then the third one promptly steps things up another notch by… well, promptly getting his ass kicked after she charges up for a chi powered super leap straight out of an anime. When we transition back to the dance room, everyone looks blown away by what they just saw, and the madam is clapping even though she never claps. Apparently Baby Doll is a very good dancer.

Now the film has gotten into it’s groove, it’s shown it’s modus operandi and is ready to turn it into a full on killing spree. Baby Doll has found her confidence and makes a plan with the other girls to break out of the bordello. She tells them they need 4 items that the Wise man instructed her to get in her fantasy sequence, a map, Fire, a knife, and a key. She tells them that to get each item she’ll do a dance to distract everyone and one of the other girls will grab the item. The map is a map of the mental hospital so they can find their way out, the fire is a lighter to start a fire as a distraction, the knife is to defend themselves if they run into trouble, and the key is the master key that Blue wears around his neck at all times which unlocks all of the gates. The only one who objects is Sweet Pea, sort of the big sister ringleader of the girls, who thinks Baby Doll is going to get someone hurt or killed. But everyone else is on board and they end up convincing her.

The movie continues as a series of setups for fantasy action sequences; the girls create an opportunity to steal one of them items while Baby Doll dances, then when the dance begins we enter Baby Doll’s fantasy where more over the top action occurs. At the beginning of each one the Wise man shows up and briefs them on their mission and the scenario, and each one feels like a gamer or fantasy nerd’s wet dream. To get the map the team takes on an army of steam powered cyborg zombie Nazis in a steampunk version of World War Two trench warfare, while one of the girls dons a big armored robot mecha with a pink bunny painted on the front. And they all look sexy doing it. To get the “fire” the team is airdropped into the middle of a castle full of orcs straight out of Lord of The Rings, to find a baby dragon and slit it’s throat to get the fire making crystals within, which of course wakes the big bad momma dragon. The get the knife they hijack a futuristic train full of combat robots to get a bomb that is headed to detonate as soon as the train reaches the city it’s speeding towards.

Now, lets not kid ourselves, none of this really has anything to do with the rest of the movie, which is silly because these action scenes are the main selling point of the movie. Granted, the idea that she’s using these fantasies to motivate her by thinking of it as a battle, dealing with the fact that she’s forced to degrade herself by doing her sexy dance for real scumbags by casting herself as a badass in a female empowerment daydream fighting for her freedom, it kind of works. Okay, it really works. In fact, we all do this sort of thing, daydreaming about being the action hero and beating up the bad guys and never letting anyone push us or anyone else around ever again. We all grew up wanting to be superheroes. Except, we probably aren’t all able to concoct well choreographed slow motion gun-fu epic battles down to the last detail like these ones, especially not while we are on stage gyrating for a sweaty old man chomping a stogie (At least, I’ve always had trouble with it.) No matter how good the metaphor they came up with is, it’s still an excuse for boobs and guns. And Orcs. And Robots. And steam powered cyborg zombie Nazi World War Two trench warfare. (end of spoilers)

But here’s the thing, it may be fan service, but it’s good fan service. I am a nerd. I like orcs, robots, steampunk, demonic samurai, mech battle suits, and Zombies. I even like Nazi zombies… if they are getting shot. And I’d have to have a real stick up my ass if I took myself so seriously that I couldn’t enjoy a little boobs and guns, when done well. In fact, these are the best boobs and guns I’ve seen since Kill Bill or the bad ass prostitutes in Sin City. Both of those are probably better movies, but I’m not about to start splitting heirs. (And don’t even start with debating whether Kill Bill 1 is better than Kill Bill 2. They are both parts of the same damn movie.)

In fact, you know what? I shouldn’t even be calling this boobs and guns. Screw the male gaze, women are going to see this movie and feel empowered and look up to these women, so I shouldn’t reduce them to prominent features of their anatomy no matter how well accentuated they are by their tight little outfits. I bet women want to be able to look good while they kick ass, why not? Sisters are doing it for themselves, not just so I can ogle their bodies while they do it. That’s the whole point. If this movie was only trying to titillate a male audience, they would have skipped the fantasies entirely and stuck with the strip dances.

This movie is about women trying to break free from male oppression, and it reminds me a lot of other films with strong females struggling to break free from being treated like sex objects. In particular it reminds me of Moulin Rouge and Chicago, the main difference here being that Sucker Punch replaces titillating song and dance numbers with violent escapist fantasies. But really both are just different types of burlesque, and never before has a movie made the association between women’s bodies on display in a strip club and women on display while performing acrobatic feats and performing beat downs as clearly.

Do I think this is bad? No, I think burlesque is fine as long as the subjects of our gaze enjoy it and feel empowered by it, and as long as we look at them as objects of respect and not just as objects. And really these women deserve our respect, they are beautiful, athletic, and good actors. Not that they don’t get paid well enough for it. As far as the characters in the film, they certainly deserve our respect for all the shit they have to put up with. No one should ever be made to live as a slave, so the protagonists struggle is obviously a just one. I guess the characters really aren’t very deep, we just feel sorry for them for having so much awful abuse inflicted on them, which is an easy way to get sympathy for a protagonist, but they have plenty of personality. That’s something that could be said about the whole movie, maybe more style than substance, but there’s a lot more going on than the usual action fare, enough substance to give all that style something to ride on, and it really is a good ride.

I won’t spoil the ending, you suckers will have to watch it for yourselves. And this is my first review. Yay.


  1. Interesting, you opened me up to a new layer of depth I missed when I saw it. Entertaining yes, but after 2 or 3 actions scenes I felt the frustration that accompanies having to watch your friends play shooter games on hard with the God Mode cheat code... knowing that the rules of injury and consequence are off takes a lot of uncertainty and tantalizing anticipation of the action, super powered anime chi strike or not. Well, there was that exception on the train, but I guess I wasn't involved enough in the characters to really care.

    And the plot was just darn confusing and hard to follow, making the creative action sequences of young girl boobs and big guns one of the only redeeming features. Would have been better rated R, but would also have lost its primary market: teen and tween girls with big dreams of kicking ass!

    Congrats on the first review and love the profile pic.

  2. Ooh, don't you hate it when you write a long replay and it gets erased when you click the post comment button? Here goes a second try.

    I totally know what you mean by the god mode thing. I was able to overlook it because the movie didn't ask me to believe the fight scenes were reality, I knew they were outright wish fulfillment fantasies. Usually only parodies and movies that otherwise don't take themselves seriously are able to pull that off, but it's a similar caveat to The Matrix, where we are told (more explicitly) that this isn't the real world and the rules can be broken, giving the writers free reign to be as gratuitous as they like. I get more bothered by god mode in most action movies where 100 trained guards with machine guns can't hit the hero given a clear shot. It's interesting though, that even though all movies are fiction, I expect realism from them unless they provide an explanation that allows otherwise.

    I hope my synopsis cleared up the plot for you, that's what it's there for at least. Well, that and establishing how I saw it from my perspective as a foundation for dialogue. I'm surprised, I didn't even realize it was PG-13, but looking back there is a clear avoidance of blood, open wounds, and on screen violence that would involve any of those. Most of the real world violence occurs off screen. Though I'm generally okay with that approach, I think violence is often more effective in our imaginations, and it adds to the film's glossy production.

    About the profile pic. It's a picture a roommate took of me for a film school lighting project. I wanted to use something that looked like it could be from a movie, and it looks like the glow on my face could be from a TV or movie screen. or maybe the ark of the covenant. It was taken by Clayton Faul. His youtube is here: You can see me in the Fight Night video on his channel.

    Thanks for the feedback, I didn't expect any so soon!

  3. You know, for someone who makes a point out of watching movies everyday, you sure don't review them very much.

  4. Hey I never said anything about reviewing them every day. That's a lot more work. But since you seem to want more I went and did another one...