I consider this one quite the pleasant surprise. Since the first footage I ever saw of Sucker Punch, I had only been looking forward to it on a purely “action and visuals” level. I prepared myself for the same “brain turned off” viewing mode that is necessary for most brainless action films, telling myself I will just let the pretty images wash over me, have a good time, and then instantly forget about it and move on with my life. After the initial wave of very negative reviews, from both critics AND friends whose opinions I respect, I figured I must have been right – that, if anything, maybe I should go in with even lower expectations than I already had.

But, you know what? I actually liked Sucker Punch. And NOT in the same stupid way I enjoy stuff like Punisher: War Zone, Fast & Furious or Ninja Assassin. No, I genuinely enjoyed the film. It’s not that I’m oblivious to the film’s flaws, of which there are quite a few (I’ll get to that in a second). But the sheer audaciousness of Snyder’s vision and what he was attempting ended up winning me over, and I couldn’t help but root for the movie as I watched it. I hate to quote another critic in my own review, but I think Devin Faraci said it best when he observed, “it doesn’t always work, but I’d rather have someone trying like this and failing than playing it safe.” That’s exactly how I feel. At a time when most action films ARE by-the-numbers efforts from directors all too happy to play it safe and avoid anything resembling a real vision, here is an ambitious action spectacle that is actually trying to say something, that is actually trying for deeper levels of meaning. Whether or not Snyder actually ACCOMPLISHES what he is trying to say here is debatable (there are definitely times where he stumbles), but shit, the very fact that he’s trying puts this movie miles above something truly vapid like Transformers 2.

Now I can respect if you don’t like Snyder’s visual style. If you find the film’s action scenes to be a little overwhelming, I won’t argue. If you personally can’t enjoy something this heavily reliant on CGI, I’ll chalk that up to personal taste and agree to disagree. But I can’t just stand by and say nothing while plenty of people call this a “dumb” movie. This is NOT a dumb movie. A buddy of mine once called Zack Snyder “Michael Bay with substance” – an apt description, I’d say, although I think Snyder has even become a better visualist than Bay. And he is certainly trying for substance here, reaching high with a crazy action film that takes place across three levels of reality, while exploring ideas of female empowerment and/or objectification in male-driven genres, and the notion of fate and one’s own personal role in their destiny.

If anything, Snyder is trying to tackle a little too much in one movie, and he’s obviously not 100% sure how to mesh all these ideas together into a completely coherent whole. But I’ll take over-ambitiousness against lazy film-making any day, and I appreciate that this IS a movie you can actually think about while also at times turning your brain off and just enjoying all the cool-looking mayhem. Interestingly enough, Snyder himself has actually complained that a number of enforced cuts, specifically the loss of a number of stylized musical production numbers, have rendered it a little harder to interpret some of the messages he was going for. That could be typical “you just don’t understand” filmmaker bullshit, but I look forward to finding out when the inevitable Director’s Cut hits blu-ray.

Another complaint that I don’t really agree with is the supposed lack of character when it comes to the main girls. I mean, I guess it’s sort of true, but I’m not really sure why it’s bothering people so much. For one thing, I think Snyder wanted these girls to essentially represent the kind of stereotypical heroines that frequent the genres he is mashing up. But, also, I think they actually DO have just enough character to drive this sort of story along. Don’t get me wrong, extremely well developed characters are great and all, but not always necessary, especially in a certain sort of action film. Here comes the film snobs to tell me I’m crazy, but it’s true – I don’t go into Predator hoping that I’ll really understand Dutch as a person; I don’t watch Starship Troopers and think “man, they sure put a lot of work into developing Johnny Rico’s personality.” Heck, even in a movie like Full Metal Jacket, the main character Pvt. Joker is essentially a cipher around whom stuff just happens. The biggest example are the numerous “men on a mission” movies that populate the genre (Sucker Punch essentially fits into this designation, just replacing men with women), which usually feature one or two main characters we really know, and then the rest of the team who are more or less interchangeable.

In Sucker Punch, the main characters have absolutely nothing in common except for the fact that they are all stuck in an insane asylum. The story takes place over the course of just a few days, during which they are primarily obsessed with breaking out. It’s not like they are going to sit around and swap stories about their past for our benefit. Plus, let’s not forget the whole movie is coming to us in the form of an unreliable narrator anyway, who might not have even ever actually met and formed the friendships with these girls that we are shown. Now, I can see how THAT might frustrate viewers, but once again it’s just more of Snyder playing with the audience and wanting you to question what you are seeing. I suspect that’s a large part of why he chose the title he did.

But, OK, if you don’t want to believe me that there actually is some interesting story stuff going on here worth looking at, then believe me that, if nothing else, my original hope for the movie’s action credentials is definitely delivered on. The action set pieces, each one of which tackles a different popular science-fiction/fantasy sub-genre, are truly awesome. I can’t imagine seeing much better action for the rest of the year than what is on display here. And stuff that whole “it just feels like a video game” nonsense. Yeah, it does…so what? People who throw that complaint around just sound like the new version of the old fuddy-duddies who complained when action films suddenly got more violent and less morally upright in the ‘70s. The fact is, today’s younger filmmakers, like Snyder and Edgar Wright and Neveldine/Taylor, are the first generation of filmmakers that have grown up in a video-game influenced culture. Obviously you are going to see more and more movies borrowing that world’s visual cues and tricks. It doesn’t mean the old styles of action will or should go away, but I think there’s room for both, and I don’t mind admitting that I found the action in Sucker Punch to be a lot more viscerally exciting than most other films in recent memory.

Like I said, this is by no means a perfect film, not by a long-shot. It has its faults – it loses some steam in the final act, Scott Glenn’s character and dialogue is regrettably laughable, and, in the end, I don’t think Snyder really earns the film’s final message, which sort of comes out of nowhere and doesn’t really feel like it fits with what he has presented to us thus far (I can think of two or three different endings that would have been much more satisfying and felt more appropriate). But still, for me, what worked overshadowed what didn’t, and I came away from this film very pleasantly surprised. I don’t doubt that a lot of the naysayers really don’t like it – this was never going to be, nor was it trying to be, a film for everyone. But at the same time, I think a lot of the negativity being thrown at it is actually more a result of a building resentment towards a certain kind of movie and filmmaker, which the critics have decided Snyder represents. I honestly believe this is a movie that will find its audience over the coming years, and will probably even come to be better understood and appreciated eventually, as well.

To sum up, yeah, I liked it. A lot. Wanna make something of it?

This review originally ran on March 29th, 2011 at Trevor Likes Movies.