Emily Browning, in her guise as Babydoll, in "Sucker Punch." (Warner Bros. )
"Sucker Punch," Zack Snyder's violent mash-up of Dickensian dark morality with Moulin Rouge couture is stun-gun gorgeous, psychosexually unnerving, fantasy action-riffic and most definitely not for the faint of heart. Starring the pretty pout of Emily Browning's Babydoll — sporting machine guns, Mary Janes, black stockings and little else — the film is, existentially speaking, a Freudian nightmare gunning for debate as much as entertainment.
Some will see the worst sort of objectification in its Victoria's Secret-esque femme front line that also includes the scantily clad corps of Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung. Others will argue that "Sucker Punch's" sexy guerrillas represent female empowerment, to say nothing of the benefits of diet and exercise. I'd suggest the film is a wonderfully wild provocation — an imperfect, overlong, intemperate and utterly absorbing romp through the id that I wouldn't have missed for the world.
Though "Sucker Punch" has the fresh feel of something new, the warrior princess leitmotif tracks back to Greek legend and has turned up in fiction and film ever since. The stories are sometimes cheeky in the way of Angelina Jolie's sharp-shooting siren in "Lara Croft." Sometimes, the twisted tales go darker as did Quentin Tarantino's cut in "Kill Bill" Vols. 1 and 2, with a brutalized and sexualized Uma Thurman.
Snyder goes darker still, opening "Sucker Punch" with a look through a rain-soaked window at why Babydoll's such a mess. Her mother's death has triggered a sinister free-fall that includes a narrow escape from her lecherous stepfather's evil intentions, the accidental shooting of her little sister and her immediate incarceration in a Vermont mental institution that prefers its crazies be virginal beauties. Technically the film is set in the '60s, but it feels more like the '40s when lobotomies were all the rage.
The blurring of reality and fantasy is there in every frame and echoes the grim storybook quality found in the graphic novel world and the fantasy look favored by gothic video games — a sort of "Guernica" of comic-book chaos. The vision is so precise and so specifically rendered that it's not surprising that the relationship between the filmmaker and cinematographer Larry Fong started before their collaboration on "300" and "Watchmen" would establish Snyder as a filmmaking fanboy phenom (next up, "Superman").
Snyder is doing his best visual work since the arresting pen-and-ink styling of 2006's "300," joining one of a handful of filmmakers like Tim Burton, whose deep imprint becomes a signature. He is aided and abetted by a brilliant team, most of whom he's worked with before, including John DesJardin ("Fantastic Four") supervising visual effects, Rick Carter ("Avatar") handling production design and costume designer Michael Wilkinson ("Babel") responsible for the exceptional eye-candy.
There is a growing confidence apparent throughout "Sucker Punch" — its story conceived by Snyder and its script co-written with Steve Shibuya — that was lacking in the filmmaker's too reverent adaptation of "Watchmen" in 2009. Even the music does a better job of layering on meaning, a haunting rock-centric mix of the familiar — a particularly great rendition of "White Rabbit" — and the new with Marius DeVries and Tyler Bates in charge.
The story exists on three levels. The first and least explored is the harsh reality of the mental institution. Next is a low-grade fantasy, with Babydoll imagining that she's actually imprisoned in a brothel with the girls forced to put on a burlesque review in a swanky men's club. The third, a high-grade, super-octane dreamscape of battles, obstacles and conquests, comes when Babydoll closes her eyes and starts to dance.
The extreme other worlds are the best by far, with Babydoll facing off against giant samurais in one, World War 1-era zombie soldiers in another, and fire-breathing dragons in yet another, all exquisitely imagined. By now, the other pretties have joined the Babydoll resistance with Cornish ("Bright Star") as the older-wiser and reluctant Sweet Pea; Malone ("The Messenger," "Bastard Out of Carolina") as her pistol of a younger sister, Rocket; "High School Musical's" Hudgens as a curvy brunet named Blondie; and Chung (TV's "Samurai Girl") as the heavy-machinery-driving Amber. There's not much to say about the acting other than these babes in boyland are heroes one and all, fearlessly showing a lot of leg as they kick, shoot and slash their way toward an uncertain victory.