erik lundegaard

Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch (2011)


“Sucker Punch” combines the worst aspects of American culture in one movie. Bravo. There’s violence without consequence, titillation without release, a gritty, comic-book surrealism masking as realism. The women are dolled up for sex, prone to violence, and treated as extras in their own story. The only thing more shabbily treated is the whole of human history, which is seen as a backdrop for cool stuff to happen.

We get a scene, for example, where the five female leads, with names like Baby Doll and Sweet Pea, wearing fetishistic gear such as bustiers and fishnet stockings, walk in slow motion through the Allied trenches of WW I. In the air, bi-planes swoop and dirigibles soar. One of the girls has a bare midriff, another sucks on a lollipop. Around them, the doughboys stare with dead expressions. They’re not fighters, these soldiers, but the girls are, and they’re about to take on the Germans, who are zombies now, in order to retrieve a map, which is merely the first step in their journey. The fact that within the movie none of this is really happening—it’s all in the head of Baby Doll as she dances her erotic dance for customers, which, by the way, isn’t really happening, either—doesn’t excuse it. The insult to history is so overwhelming I wish someone had copywritten WWI and could sue.

As awful as all this is, though, the most awful aspect of “Sucker Punch” may be its form rather than its content.

Since storytelling began, around whatever campfire or inside of whatever cave, our stories have tended to the horizontal: this happened then this happened then this happened. Recently, for a generation now, our most popular stories, video games, have tended to the vertical: you go to this place, then advance through four levels to get to the next place, where there are more levels. “Sucker Punch” is like a video game except we have no control over it. Alas.

Here’s the horizontal story: A girl is committed to a mental institution, where, after five days, she is lobotomized. The End.

Here’s the vertical story: Baby Doll (Emily Browning), petite and blonde, with big eyes and full lips, deals with her incarceration in a mental institution by escaping into a fantasy world, in which her doctor, Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), is a Russian dance instructor, and an orderly, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac, in full throat), is a gangster who runs an erotic nightclub where all the girls are forced to dance. Why is this her fantasy—this odd mix of “Showgirls” and “White Nights”—rather than, I don’t know, the fantasy of writer-director Zack Snyder (“300”; “Watchmen”) and most of the fanboys in the audience? Sorry. Stupid question. I’m assuming Baby Doll is a three-dimensional character when she’s just a two-dimensional avatar for Snyder to move about to places where cool shit happens.

The cool shit, and most of the movie, doesn’t happen in the erotic nightclub, by the way. It happens in the fantasy world Baby Doll escapes into so she can perform her mesmerizing dances in the erotic nightclub. It’s the fantasy of her fantasy. And in this fantasy, she’s student to a wise man, known only as Wise Man, who is vaguely Oriental—she first meets him sitting in a temple in the lotus position and surrounded by Chinese characters and Japanese swords—but he’s played by Scott Glenn of Pittsburgh, Pa. Speaking in vaguely wise bromides with a tendency toward the American vulgar (e.g., “Don’t write a check with your mouth that you can’t cash with your ass”), he sends her on a quest to find five items: a map, fire, a knife, and a key. And the fifth thing? “The fifth thing is a mystery,” he tells her. “It is the reason. It is the goal. It will be a deep sacrifice and a perfect victory.” Then he sends her off to fight three giant samurai warriors in slow-motion.

The actions in this double fantasy world correspond, in some fashion, to the actions in the fantasy world. So while, in Fantasy II, the girls steal the map from the zombie German commandant, in Fantasy I, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) steals a map out of the office of Blue Jones. One assumes this map-stealing corresponds to actions in the real world, the world of the mental asylum, but we barely see that world. We’re mostly just trying to get to the next level: first, World War I (map), then medieval castle and dragon (fire), then high-speed train (carrying a bomb: codenamed, clumsily, “kitchen knife”). Mom! Don’t bug me about the real world! I’m trying to get to the next le-vel!

It’s on the highspeed train that the fantasies fall apart. Rocket (Jena Malone), scrappy kid sister to Sweet Pea, dies on the train, and so dies in the kitchen of the erotic nightclub, and so, one assumes, dies in the mental asylum. And that’s our last double fantasy. The nightclub owner—read: nasty orderly—is onto the girls’ escape plan, and kills two of them. But then Baby Doll sticks a kitchen knife in his neck, sets a fire as a diversion, and uses his master key to unlock the doors to freedom. Except—still in the nightclub fantasy—there are too many 1940s gangstery dudes hanging out front. Which is when Baby Doll realizes what the fifth thing is. It’s herself. So she uses herself as a diversion to allow Sweet Pea to escape. And the moment the biggest gangster dude is about to shoot her in the head is the moment the doctor (Jon Hamm, of all actors) gives her a lobotomy.

That’s pretty much it. There’s some comeuppance for the nasty orderly, and, through the blissful face of a lobotomized Baby Doll, we see, in an apparent mix of Fantasy I and Fantasy II, Sweet Pea trying to board a bus to freedom, being stopped by cops, but being saved by the bus driver, the Wise Man, who uses subterfuge (an old Jedi mind trick) to send them away.

Meanwhile, the narrator (still Scott Glenn, I believe), asks the audience a series of questions about who holds what key to where, then gives us the answer that Baby Doll figured out for herself. “It’s you,” he says. “You have all the weapons you need. Now fight!” Cue: blast of hard rock/rap and the words “Directed by Zack Snyder.”

You know the guy at school who thinks he’s cool but is just ridiculous? Like Mike Damone, the ticket scalper, in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”? That’s “Sucker Punch.” “Sucker Punch” is the Mike Damone of movies.

What’s with this final message anyway? Yes, kids. Be like this movie. Go home, turn on your video game console, and fight.

Me, I went home, took a shower, and tried to wash this shit off me.

—April 3, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard