Sucker Punch a sprawling and convoluted action sci-fi fantasy is director Zack Snyder’s first “original” film in that it’s based on a script Snyder co-wrote (along with Steve Shibuya) and not a graphic novel or a previous movie. But to anyone who has seen Snyder’s two previous live-action films 300 and Watchmen it will feel awfully familiar: His now-trademark flourishes – gorgeous visuals elaborate action sequences a desaturated color palette a CGI-airbrushed “heightened reality ” abundant slo-mo and fatal self-seriousness – are all conspicuously on display.
It’s all there in fact in Sucker Punch’s opening sequence: a very intense and ultra-dramatic montage set to a haunting cover of the Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams" and slowed down to a crawl so that we may better admire every super-stylized detail of Snyder’s exquisite handiwork. It depicts a series of wrenching domestic tragedies that result in the film’s teenage heroine Babydoll (Emily Browning) being shipped off to an all-girls mental hospital by her malevolent stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) properly setting the stage for the ensuing melodrama.
To ensure Babydoll doesn’t act up again evil stepdaddy bribes a corrupt orderly (Oscar Isaac) into having the traumatized but otherwise mentally competent girl lobotomized without the required consent of the facility’s resident psychiatrist Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino). The year is 1967 and lobotomies though still legal are exceedingly rare; as such they must wait five days for the local lobotomizing physician (Jon Hamm) to come and turn Babydoll into a very pretty vegetable. Which is more than enough time for her to retreat into a dreamworld and concoct a vivid fantasy in which she and four scantily clad mates – Rocket (Jena Malone) Sweat Pea (Abbie Cornish) Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) Amber (Jamie Chung) – conspire to escape the brothel in which they’re imprisoned.
The meat of the escape plan calls for a series of quests in which Babydoll and the gang battle giant samurais World War I zombie troopers futuristic alien robots dragons et al – all while dressed in sleek variants of the archetypal hot chick Halloween costumes (sexy nurse sexy schoolgirl sexy sanitation worker etc.). The sequences are well-choreographed and visually stimulating but have very little connection to the plot – they’re more like beautiful and disposable diversions grandiose music videos in which Snyder is able to cram elements from a broad spectrum of pop culture influences from Hong Kong cinema and anime to Moulin Rouge and Heavy Metal without any apparent rules or logic to bind his fertile imagination.
All of which wouldn’t be so bad – honestly it wouldn’t – if Sucker Punch weren’t so punishingly maudlin. Nary a scene goes by in which some poor girl isn’t threatened or smacked or nearly raped. (All the women in the film are victims; the men with the exception of Scott Glenn's imaginary character monsters.) A movie with hot chicks and guns and orcs and robots and zombies should at the very least be fun. But Snyder’s film is dour and pretentious to the point of pain an overstuffed emo tragedy bracketed by ponderous voiceover about demons and monsters and how all of us have the weapons within us to defeat them. Or something like that. Sucker Punch is such a molten-hot mess that whatever Important Message it's supposed to convey ends up hopelessly garbled by the time the end credits roll.
When retired U.S. Special Forces Soldier Chris Vaughn (Johnson) returns to Kipsat County Wash. it's only to find his hometown overrun with crime drugs and violence. The old mill where Chris's father (John Beasley) worked for most of his life is closed and the town's only thriving industry is the Wild Cherry casino. Even Chris' high school sweetie Deni (Ashley Scott) couldn't resist the Wild Cherry's lure; she's become a peepshow dancer to "pay the bills." But Chris really loses it when he discovers the casino's dealers are using loaded dice--and he starts a brawl that ends with the security team carving up his chest and abdomen with a rusty Exacto knife. Chris also learns that that his old high school rival the casino's owner Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough) has transformed the mill into a crystal meth lab and is using the casino's menacing security staff to sell the drugs to innocent kids. Chris strikes back by running for sheriff firing the entire police department on his first day and with the help of a cedar two-by-four and his deputy and buddy Ray Templeton (Johnny Knoxville) restores peace to the Pacific Northwest.
Johnson looking buffer than ever is well cast in the role of Chris: He's a fearless and determined soldier with beyond-human fighting skills. But while the film takes advantage of Johnson's brawn it fails to take advantage of his brain. In last year's comedy The Rundown Johnson proved he was more than a muscle-bound action star; he oozed charm and was surprisingly witty. With Walking Tall he never gets a chance to flex his acting muscles; if anything they atrophy. The only skills Johnson gets to show off are his ability to swing a plank at someone's shins and his unique way of bashing skulls against slot machines. Johnson's sidekick Ray played by Knoxville of MTV's Jackass fame is an ex-junkie who after spending a couple of years in the slammer is content with living in a camper and doing odd jobs around town. With his scraggly appearance and klutzy demeanor Knoxville supplies the film with brief interludes of humor amid the slam fest including a scene in which he stabs a bad guy with a potato peeler. Johnson and Knoxville would have made a first-rate action team had they had more screen time together.
A WWE production with Vince McMahon serving as executive producer Walking Tall has none of the subtlety of director Kevin Bray's last film All About the Benjamins and all the elements of a wrestling match. As with wrestling the film begins by melodramatically establishing the story (Chris and his family's lives are devastated by the mill's closure) and just like rival pugilists who publicly taunt the favored wrestler Chris challenges Jay--not for the world title but at least for control of Kipsat County--in a never-ending battle between good and evil that mimics wrestling to a T. But what's entertaining in the ring doesn't translate to film especially when the good guy running the town is a maniacal meathead. Chris is supposed to be the protagonist who single-handedly saves the town but who's responding to the citizens' domestic violence calls for example when the sheriff fires the entire precinct and spends 24 hours a day casing the casino? Never mind the fact that he has sex with his girlfriend in his office while he's on the clock.
A pathetic shell of a man shy milquetoast Willard Stiles (Crispin Glover) leads a lonely life caring for his dying mother in their dirty and decrepit old mansion where his late father's portrait (of Bruce Davison Willard in the 1971 original) hangs in gloomy watch over his urn of ashes no lights are ever on and rats are overrunning the basement. He's got a miserable desk job working for the cruel man who took over Willard's family business and who gives him nothing but grief day in and day out. When his mother orders Willard (whom she calls "Clark" as she hates his given name) to kill the rats breeding downstairs he not only can't bring himself to do it he goes so far as to make pets of them. Socrates gets favored-rat status inspiring resentment in Ben a huge black rat that Willard requently and unceremoniously throws into the basement by its thick tail. But befriending them doesn't end there; when Willard discovers that he can psychically command his new--and quickly multiplying--friends to do things like "tear it up " he employs this four-legged army to exact revenge upon his enemies. Willard's control is short-lived however and when jealous Ben takes charge of the rat pack nothing can stop the roiling hordes from "tearing up" whatever--and whoever--they want.
Crispin Glover (The River's Edge Back to the Future) was born to play seething manic Willard. Sadly Glover is one of Hollywood's most underrated actors no doubt because he chooses off-putting movies and characters like these that are devastatingly funny pitiable and abhorrent all at once. Here he delivers an ace performance as a troubled young man who gradually slips down the slope of madness into utter dementia. Ultimately Willard is as awful as anyone else yet the gut-wrenching emotional roller-coaster ride Glover takes us on creates a weird empathy for this antihero as his snarling features twist from doubt to anger to fear to sadness in the blink of an eye. R. Lee Ermey is a monster as Willard's boss Frank Martin; Jackie Burroughs as Willard's ghastly revolting mother is given some of the movie's funniest lines; and Socrates and Ben (rat? CGI? Chinchilla?) bring it home.
Written and directed by Glen Morgan (screenwriter Final Destination X-Files) Willard is a fascinating character study made even more so by its subtext of betrayal. The term "rat" can be used to describe one who betrays and everyone in this movie is a "rat " so to speak: Willard's family is betrayed; Willard's parents betray him; Willard betrays his animal friends; Willard is betrayed. The only non-"rats" are in fact the furred-and-whiskered ones who repulsive as they may be are loyal until given reason not to be. The production values and editing are outstanding the script is tight some of the lines are laugh-out-loud funny and the blacker-than-black humor will appeal to the sort of people who won't mind watching a kitty cat meet its demise to Michael Jackson's schmaltzy "Ben." That said animal lovers beware: Even though you know it's not real Willard contains some horrifying scenes. Still despite the vile turns the movie takes you have to hand it to Morgan who is unafraid nay eager to go there. You on the other hand may not be so willing.