The first question you might have about Sucker Punch is whether it is an entirely pointless action movie. After all, the posters and trailers for Sucker Punch all present five scantily clad young women in various violent settings, giving the impression that it's all action and no story. As someone who had these assumptions before finally seeing the movie, I can tell you this: the action is NOT pointless, and there IS a story. In fact, the main reason I liked Sucker Punch is not because the action isn't pointless but because the point of the action is a rather interesting one: driving the story without being too obvious about doing so.
Before I clarify this, let me give you the setup. The story begins with Baby Doll (Emily Browning), whose mother passes away. However, after seeing that the will identifies Baby Doll and her sister as beneficiaries, Baby Doll's stepfather tries to molest her sister, forcing Baby Doll to fight back. Unfortunately, the stepfather tells a convincing lie and gets Baby Doll checked into a mental institution. There, she meets four other young institutionalized women named Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Amber (Jamie Chung), and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens). Other characters include the therapist Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) and an orderly named Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac).
After this introduction of characters, the movie takes a very unexpected and confusing turn that I ultimately found to be clever. The scene changes to something entirely different, even though the same cast members are there. The mental institution suddenly becomes a brothel with the five women appearing as prostitutes. Pretty soon, another change causes the mental institution to become a ballet studio, with the five women as ballerinas and Dr. Gorski as a ballet instructor. The reason for this is simple: Baby Doll's coping mechanism in response to the grittiness of the institution is to reimagine her surroundings as something else.
Meanwhile, you might be wondering what the action in this movie is all about. Well, they serve the same purpose. Each of the action sequences, of which there are four (but they go on for quite a while), represent the mind of Baby Doll as she is confronting and overcoming fear in a certain type of distressing situation at the mental facility. If you enjoy action for its audio and visual candy, you won't be disappointed. The scenes mesh all sorts of elements from different subgenres of action movies, including guns, swords, dragons, robots, giant samurai warriors, and dead Nazi soldiers reanimated by steam-powered clockwork technology. While they might seem like a distraction from the mental institution story, they aren't.
Once I put it all together and figured out this movie's clever narrative technique, I nodded with approval. Both the setting changes and the action scenes, all coming from Baby Doll's mind, advance the story. They don't merely influence the events in the mental institution, nor do they just parallel the events in the mental institution. They ARE the events in the mental institution.
Here's a good example. In one of the action scenes, Baby Doll is a samurai warrior who asks for the way to achieve freedom. She is told to seek a map, fire, a knife, a key, and the answer to a mystery that she will eventually discover. Then the movie goes back to the mental facility where Baby Doll tells the other four women about an escape plan that would require obtaining a map, fire, a knife, and a key. Soon, the movie goes into an action scene in which the five women, all heavily armed with machine guns, fight numerous enemies in an effort to steal a map. All of this is nothing more than an unusual way to narrate the part of the story in which a map of the mental institution is secretly obtained.
Basically, Sucker Punch is about five women trying to escape from captivity, but the story is told through Baby Doll's unreal perspectives instead of a direct visualization of the mental institution as it appears in reality. If you understand this, then you can see that none of the scenes are distractions from the real story, because they are representations of what's happening in reality. That's why I didn't get confused when a series of consecutive scenes would take place in, let's say, a strip club, a ballet studio, a war zone, and a brothel. They may be entirely different scenes on the surface, but underneath it all, the events at the mental institution are constantly being narrated without interruption.
So there you have it. I was pleasantly surprised by Sucker Punch. The story may be simple, but it's told in a very original style. The action is pretty cool, too. I will admit that the five main characters, though distinct in physical appearance, essentially have identical personalities, and the women don't seem to get hurt most of the time during the action scenes. But these are minor criticisms. The important thing is that Sucker Punch is a surreal drama and action movie with a neat way to tell a story. Director Zack Snyder (of Watchmen and 300 fame) deserves credit for his creativity here.
Anthony's Rating: 7/10
(Review originally published at http://www.anthonysfilmreview.com/Film/S/Sucker_Punch.htm)