Looks aren't everything. Case in point: Sucker Punch, a dazzling visual design that goes tone-deaf every time it opens its dumb mouth or makes claims to profundity. Zack Snyder, who directed Watchmen, 300, the animated Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole and a better-than-decent reboot of Dawn of the Dead, flounders badly in this action-fantasy about babes in bondage. Snyder's script, written with Steve Shibuya, is a recipe for a raunchy R-rated hellzapoppin' that pussies out in this PG-13 safety zone.
The movie, Snyder's first original, comes off as a tease that cops out on its shoddy but kinky premise. Take Babydoll, the film's put-upon protagonist played with a perpetual pout and black undies by Emily Browning. Snyder outfits Babydoll in fetish gear but provides no character for Browning to play. Just surface. The time is the 1960s. The place is the Lennox House insane asylum, where Babydoll – shaken by the death of her mother – is sent by her stepfather when she rebuffs his slobbering advances. Did I mention that Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" plays with sledgehammer irony as poor Babydoll is used and abused? It does.
In the loony bin, Babydoll is tortured by Blue (Oscar Isaac portrays him as a sneer personified) with the help of Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino), a dance teacher with an outrageous accent and stiletto heels to mark her personality. At night, Blue helps the High Roller (Jon Hamm, fire your agent) turn Lennox into a brothel where Babydoll can dirty-dance for the delectation of male creeps.
What's Babydoll to do? Bond with other girls just like herself, of course. There's brunette Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens miles from High School Musical), sassy Rocket (Jena Malone), reliable Amber (Jamie Chung) and protective Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish, a fine actress slumming it). Are the girls real or figments of Babydoll's imagination? Trust me, you won't care. Not after they do useless Rockette dance numbers and natter on like rejects from Sex and the City.
Do the fantastic five vanquish their male exploiters? No, but they fantasize about it. At the first sign of nudity, the censor-friendly camera cuts to dream scenes of the girls in warrior drag going medieval on the asses of giant snakes, samurai with Gatling guns, and the Orcs who serve dragons ("Don't wake the mother"). Scott Glenn plays the Wise Man who helps them gird for battle. I am not making this up. Snyder did, letting timid incoherence run rampant from his head into ours. Talk about a pulled-punch movie. Only a sucker would buy into it.