Thursday, March 24, 2011

Review: "Sucker Punch"

An overheated steampunk fantasia of girls in go-go outfits wreaking vengeance with ninja swords and machine guns, "Sucker Punch" is a bowl full of hot mess of filmmaking.

I'm all for crazy, off-kilter movies packed to the hilt with the fertile imagination of the creators. But this latest from "300" director Zack Snyder (who co-wrote the script with Steve Shibuya) is a greenhouse of cinematic references crammed together, sprinkled with steroid fertilizer and the heat cranked up to sweltering jungle temperature.

The result is an overgrown thicket of ideas, smashed together indiscriminately without any thought of coherence, instead relishing in the sheer cool juxtapositions of loopy elements for their own sake.

To wit: In one scene, our team parachutes from a World War II B-24 into an army of orcs from "The Lord of the Rings" and blow them away with modern weaponry. And when I say the orcs from "LoTR," I don't mean they kinda/sorta resemble the snarly brutes from the fantasy trilogy, I mean they look exactly like them. Their HQ even has the same sharp spires of Mordor. Then, for good measure, the girls take on the fire-breathing lizard from "Dragonslayer."

That follows on the heels of another sequence set in the trenches of World War I where the girls battle zombie German soldiers, whom the Kaiser has reanimated with "steam power and clockworks." They're assisted by one of their crew piloting a giant mechanized warrior, which appears to be straight out of "Avatar" by way of "Aliens." They tangle with the Red Baron and blow up the Hindenburg.

These two scenes, indisputably the coolest in the movie, have their own kooky energy and kinetic style -- highlighted by Snyder's now-familiar spiraling camera moves replete with sped-up and slo-mo action heavily augmented by CGI.

As he falls back on these fancy technical tricks again and again, they begin to grow wearing -- as in a fight aboard a train against a couple dozen Terminators, which despite the nonstop mayhem manages to become downright dull.

And whenever the story drops out of its fantasy realm into the framing device -- in which our winsome warriors are inmates at a Gothic mental hospital in Vermont -- the film loses all momentum.

Or is the madhouse actually a front for a burlesque theater-slash-bordello, in which the girls are captives made to dance and service the pleasures of the customers? Snyder and Shibuya think they're keeping the audience guessing with their morphing prism of reality. But any half-awake observer will figure out the real scheme of things, as clear as the peal of a hammerstroke.

Our protagonist is Baby Doll (Aussie actress Emily Browning), a pint-sized pixie with blonde pigtails and a perpetually vacant gaze. Thrown into the hospital after tangling with her evil stepfather, Baby is determined to break out. As she dances for the evil head orderly/club owner Blue (a slithery Oscar Isaac) and his minions, her consciousness slips into the Bizarro-world universe of her "missions."

She even has a sensai to guide her, a wily, wrinkled warrior played by Scott Glenn. He always has "one last thing" to warn them about, and invariably the worst-case scenario always comes to pass.

Baby's recruits are her fellow inmates/prostitutes: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), the lead girl who doesn't like risks; her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), who dreams of going home; and an interchangeable pair (Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung) who are just around to service the plot.

Their instructor is Gorski (Carla Gugino), who's a doctor trying to help the patients through role-playing therapy in the nuthouse, and the stern dance instructor in the brothel part. Her Russian Svengali accent so drips with rolled r's and glottal clicks I kept expecting her to call out for "moose and squirrel."

I can't deny there are parts of "Sucker Punch" -- I'm clueless as to the title's meaning, btw -- that are screwy fun: Strange vignettes unhinged from reality or any sense of logic. But it takes more than a scoopful of geekboy fantasy elements to make a movie, and this one just keeps piling ingredients into the gumbo without ever considering how they'll taste together.

2 stars out of four

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