I'm a big fan of Zack Snyder. 300 was an excellent film and the effects still knock me out every time I watch it. I wasn't as crazy about The Watchmen, but that's because I really like the graphic novel. I think Snyder's version is the absolute best movie that could have been made out of that book, though. I'll even go so far as to say I loved his remake of Dawn of the Dead. I know a lot of people hold the original in extremely high regard and I'll probably catch flak for digging it as much as I do. I needed to tell you all of this so you understand how hard it is for me to admit that Sucker Punch is a total mess. It's a beautiful mess, but a mess nonetheless.
Sucker Punch is a bout a girl called Baby Doll. Baby Doll is abused by her stepfather. One day she decides to stand up and defend herself, but it goes horribly wrong and she ends up placed in an asylum. Now she has five days before a doctor comes to give her a lobotomy and she has to find a way to get free. This isn't spoiling anything. You learn all of this within the first 15 minutes of the film. On top of that, the story really doesn't matter. After a few trips to alternate realities the actual plot doesn't really make sense anymore and just becomes a roadblock between extravagant action sequences. Yeah, there are different levels of reality at play here...you just have to roll with that. It's like the Wizard of Oz if Dorothy occasionally took a trip down a rabbit hole into Wonderland. She keeps going deeper into her own mind in an attempt to get away from the horrors of her reality. You see the manifestations of her imagination. This is a really cool sounding idea and it allows for the story to be interpreted in a number of different ways, but it just gets confusing. You're never sure what actually takes place or how one level of reality translates into another.
If I had to qualify Sucker Punch, I would say that it's a "Sci-Fi Action Musical". Yes, musical. Honestly I'm not even sure if it is a movie. It plays out like a string of loosely related music videos accented by cut-scenes from awesome-looking video games. I will admit that I love these action sequences. Everything that happens in the deepest recesses (Wonderland) of Baby Doll's mind are 100% pure, balls-out, genius. There are all manner of fantastic creatures taken out in the most bad-ass ways imaginable. This is the only part of the film where being so muddled actually works to it's advantage. Nothing has to make sense so anything can happen. It is the cinematic representation of a nerdgasm. One minute Baby Doll could be fighting giant demon samurais and the next minute she's wreaking havoc on steampunk Nazi zombies. Everything that happens in Wonderland is completely breathtaking. Sucker Punch has some of the best, and most satisfying, slam-bang action sequences I have ever scene. The movie is so disjointed, however, that even these scenes don't save it from itself.
When I say the movie plays out like a collection of music videos I really mean that. There are full songs that play over extended montages. For example the film opens with a cover of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" performed by Emily Browning, the actress who plays Baby Doll. While the song plays you get all of the plot information I outlined above. No dialogue, just a series of slow motion images setting up the film. It's one of the best music videos I've seen in a long time, but it doesn't make a great movie. I guess this is what I'm trying to say. You can take sections of the movie out and, by themselves, they are fantastic. A movie isn't made by taking a bunch of really cool scenes and butting them up against each other though. The story is stretched so thin trying to keep all of these pieces into place that it snaps under the pressure. That is why it fails. It's the greatest "highlight reel" a director has ever constructed, but fails to become a real motion picture. But whatever it is in the end, it has a great soundtrack.
On the whole, the acting sucks. Whenever the movie slows down a bit and you're listening to the girls talking in a room together, it's cringe-inducing. The dialogue isn't the best that has ever been written, but it's solid enough that a capable actor could keep it from sounding stilted and laughable. You just want these girls to shut the hell up and start killing things again. This keeps the actual story of the film from being engaging on any level. The lead group of girls are fantastic in the action sequences, though. When the film just calls for the girls to look good and dance around the screen kicking ass, they excel. Especially Abbie Cornish, who plays Sweet Pea. I can definitely see her as an action movie star and I look forward to that happening. Scott Glenn and Carla Cugino hold their own, but have very little time to do anything interesting with their characters. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Oscar Isaac is outstanding. He just walks around chewing up the scenery. Whenever he is on screen he owns this movie.
Zack snyder is a gifted director and I respect him for experimenting with this film. He struck out, but there is no denying he swung for the fences. It's the kind of risk major studios should be taking, and it's also a perfect example of why they don't. The studio let Snyder run wild and make exactly the movie he wanted to make and he failed. It doesn't make him a hack or a bad director. He took a risk. If more directors were allowed to take these kinds of risks we would have a lot more great and unique films...but we would also have more movies that were absolute garbage. Snyder has a very distinctive visual style and he needs to find a producer that will help him to aim his creativity in the right way. Hopefully Christopher Nolan is this kind of producer and he helps Snyder hit the new Superman reboot out of the park.
I've just now come back from seeing Sucker Punch for a second time. I honestly haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I first saw it yesterday afternoon. I still agree with everything that I've written above, but I enjoyed myself a lot more this time around. I love the look and tone. I love the music. I love the visual effects and action sequences. I still think it's a complete mess and it fails as a movie, though. Sucker Punch is like a big bag full of all sorts of different kinds of candy. It's jumbled and full of different flavors that don't necessarily go together. You know it's bad for you and you'll still be hungry after you eat it, but you keep wanting to look through it and pick out the things you really like.
The Good, the Bad, and Going "Nowhere Fast"
Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs The World is another example of a studio giving free reign to a director who has a unique vision. It is a total box-office failure, but an absolute success on a creative level. It's fun, fast, and completely surreal. Unlike Sucker Punch, though, it also makes total sense and tells an involving and coherent story. It's downfall is that it is a movie made for a pretty specific audience, much like Sucker Punch. If you are part of this target audience it's a movie that has to be seen to be believed. You have definitely never seen anything like it.
Transformers was surprisingly great. Michael bay has made some great movies (The Rock, Bad Boys II) and he has made total trash (Pearl Harbor). I was afraid that it was the wrong Michael Bay that was making this movie. I was glad to find that my fears were unfounded, and anticipated how great the inevitable sequel was destined to be. Enter, Transformers 2. This is an example of what happens when a studio gives a director carte-blanche and he falls flat on his face. He took all of the elements of the first movie that worked, threw them away, and instead added scenes of dogs humping things and the hero's mother getting high on pot brownies. Oh yeah, and he gave the robots testicles.
Streets of Fire was supposed to be the first in a new series of action movies. It was supposed to make Michael Pare a leading man and a household name. It was going to make director Walter Hill one of the big shots in the industry. It didn't do any of this. The audience just wasn't ready for it. It's like Sucker Punch in many different ways. It's a "Sci-Fi Action Musical", it's based in a hyper-stylized time period that doesn't seem rooted in the future or the past, and it's kind of a mess. It is so much damn fun, though, and I can promise you that you haven't ever seen anything quite like it. I discovered this movie somewhat recently and I completely embrace it. Another "almost masterpiece" in Walter Hill's career.