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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Sucker Punch: Director's Cut (A Second Chance)

Most cinephiles have a unique condition: to us, watching a movie is almost always better than not watching a movie. While I may recognize when a movie we’re watching is bad, rare is the film that truly, truly angers me. I like them, so most of the time I find the viewing and analysis of a film to be a pleasurable experience. However, once or twice a year a movie comes along that causes me to nearly spit venom in my theater seat. For one reason or another, Zack Snyder’s folly Sucker Punch was one such example. This is a film that no less than infuriated me, and I didn’t feel like I was watching it so much I was enduring it. What I was seeing was not a movie so much as it was the overblown and mean-spirited fantasy of an adolescent boy. To some, it appeared ambitious. To me, it was ambitious in the way that a child playing with its toys is ambitious. In the heat of the moment—immediately after my screening—I wrote what is perhaps my most negative review since I started this site. Sucker Punch wasn’t inept like last year’s Skyline or The Last Airbender; to me, that it was so slickly made only made the experience more infuriating.

If you had told me back then that I would devote another two hours of my life to watching Sucker Punch again, I would have kicked you square in the teeth. If you had told me back then that I would voluntarily choose to watch the director’s cut of Sucker Punch—which is 17 minutes longer!—I would have kicked you in the teeth and called you very unpleasant things. But the week that Sucker Punch was released on DVD and Blu-ray, IFC.com’s Matt Singer wrote an article about one of the sequences that didn’t make the theatrical cut. Set to a cover of Roxy Music song “Love is the Drug,” this clip seemed to advertise a different, better movie entirely.

Ignoring Carla Gugino’s irritating Natasha Fatale accent, this sequence suddenly made the prospect of an unfiltered Sucker Punch slightly more intriguing to me. The problem with the theatrical cut was not its restraint, but its messiness never felt particularly cinematic or engaging. Snyder obviously wanted Sucker Punch to be a genre-spanning (and media-spanning) spectacular of sorts, but watching the theatrical cut it seemed as if he had forgotten to make a freaking movie. Watching this “Love is the Drug” video, I felt it had a positive energy that the film I saw completely lacked. As most of the press around Sucker Punch seemed to indicate that the theatrical version was not Snyder’s intended vision, I wondered if there were more “Love is the Drug”-type gems to be found in the director’s cut. So I watched it, hoping that the real, Snyder-approved Sucker Punch was actually worthwhile.

I shall cut to the chase. Is it better? Yes, considerably. However, it certainly doesn’t come close to fitting my definition of “good.” Most of the problems seen in the theatrical cut are still present, but some of the new material—including a vital scene with Jon Hamm that was cut to keep the PG-13 rating—actually gives the film a clearer sense of purpose. Snyder’s goal is still a bit strange, but I felt the new cut elevated the film from deplorable mess to fascinating mess. Sucker Punch is still a failure as a film, and nothing will ever change my opinion on that. The parts I thought were horrid before are still horrid, and the film’s idea of “female empowerment” is still incredibly misguided. (By that I don’t mean that Sucker Punch is sexist. I just mean it’s not good.) It’s just that the theatrical cut showcased nothing but the worst Zack Snyder has to offer. With the director’s cut, we can at last see that it could have been a good film. That’s a considerable improvement over the black hole of misery that came before.

Possible spoilers ahead.

The biggest difference between the two versions comes at the end of the film, with the addition of a scene that completely changes the ending for the better. In the theatrical version—at the conclusion of the brothel story—our hero Babydoll (Emily Browning) decides to sacrifice herself so that Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) may escape. She creates a distraction, and ends up getting punched in the face as most of the women do in this universe. At that point we are (to use the Inception term) “kicked” back to reality, where Babydoll has just been lobotomized by Jon Hamm. In the theatrical version, the great freedom she’s been looking for turned out to be a fist to the face and an ice pick to the forehead. Huzzah, free at last!

Turns out this was not Snyder’s intention. While the director’s cut still ends with Babydoll’s lobotomy, there’s an additional scene in the brothel which gives her a slightly happier ending. After the aforementioned face-punch, she wakes up in a room with Jon Hamm’s “High Roller.” He delivers a long (and rather confusing) speech about how he doesn’t just want to have sex with her, but instead wants to do it consensually. In return, he will grant her a sort of freedom that isn’t wholly defined. While this scene hardly hits the ending out of the park, it allows Babydoll a chance to finally take control of her own future. The High Roller doesn’t want to simply use her as the other men in the brothel do; he wants her to give herself up by choice. The message may be questionable, but it’s better than ending her story with an act of physical violence. Instead it ends with an act of love. Plus, the scene is much tamer than just about everything else Snyder has thrown in our faces for the rest of the film. The MPAA demanded that this rather well-intentioned love scene be cut for the PG-13 rating, but it allowed most of the other abuse to stay. Something is horribly wrong with this picture. Young girls getting shot by Oscar Isaac? That’s fine! Emily Browning and Jon Hamm peacefully kissing? Oh, the humanity! What are you trying to do to our children, Zack Snyder?

Unfortunately, most of the action sequences are just as I remember them; dull, CGI-heavy and incompatible with the medium of film. At its worst, Sucker Punch plays like a series of music videos and video game levels that don’t really add up to much at all. I was hoping the director’s cut would reveal that the third-level action setpieces actually serve some purpose, but the reality is they’re just as useless as before. What Snyder doesn’t understand about action is that cool, flashy visuals alone do not create excitement. It’s actually all about context. As our heroes in Sucker Punch fight a bunch of steam-powered World War I-era German soldiers, it’s not engrossing because it comes out of freaking nowhere and has no real impact on the film’s real story. They still just feel like a bunch of hooey Snyder came up with and that he decided to build a movie around. Plus, he needs to end his relationship with slow motion. He’s become far too obsessed with it, and he seems to believe that it makes everything inherently awesome. The reality is that it makes everything look like it’s trying to be awesome.

It is here I suggest a version of Sucker Punch that could have (I think) been truly terrific. Imagine a film where Snyder completely removed the video game-y action sequences and replaced them with actual song-and-dance numbers akin to “Love is the Drug.” The film implies that all the action occurs while Babydoll is dancing, so why don’t we actually watch her dance? That was always one of the film’s weirdest flaws to me; we keep hearing about what an incredible dancer Babydoll is, but the film never shows us. It reminds me of something TV critic Todd VanDerWerff said in his review of the USA show Suits: “Telling us something is easy; showing us something is much, much harder.” By that he means that a bunch of characters praising someone’s talent doesn’t mean squat if we don’t see any proof. In Sucker Punch, we only see Emily Browning sway a few times before being sent into a ridiculous, alienating fantasy world. If the film completely excised the action and instead made Sucker Punch a full-fledged musical, the film might have been slightly more coherent and entertaining. J.J. Abrams didn’t just have characters talk about Elle Fanning’s acting abilities in Super 8. He showed us.

Sucker Punch’s great failure is that it wants to have its cake and eat it too. Snyder wants to make a statement against movies like this while also making that exact kind of movie. The result is frequently unpleasant and wrongheaded. He wants us to think about how most action movies’ only ambition is to appease the adolescent boy in us all, but I cannot take this message seriously if it is coming from the director of 300. The good news is that the director’s cut makes Snyder’s ambition slightly clearer and more admirable, if still problematic. Sucker Punch wants to be a tale of empowerment through exploitation, but unfortunately it just doesn’t work like that.


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