Having joined the ranks of today’s most promising young directors after first crafting videos for Morrissey and Dionne Farris, Zack Snyder has skillfully married his passion for music with his inclination to grandiose cinema.
Whether thrusting us into a world on the brink of apocalypse against Johnny Cash’s haunting “The Man Comes Around” in “Dawn of the Dead” (2004), or opening his adaptation of “Watchmen” (2009) with a digest of superhero history backed by Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” Snyder has a Midas touch in the soundtrack department.
He puts it to good use in “Sucker Punch,” an elaborately staged tribute to girl power featuring amped-up covers of classics by The Beatles (“Tomorrow Never Knows”) and The Stooges (“Search and Destroy”), among others. The music is central here, lending each scene an insistent layer of urgency.
That, perhaps, is the saving grace of “Punch,” in which Snyder, working off a screenplay co-authored with Steve Shibuya, seems more interested in providing an experience than a fully functional narrative.
Lacking in this hyperthyroid adventure, involving five girls (played by Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung) in a Vermont mental ward, is a satisfying account of their actual trials.
The movie is, in fact, a two-hour metaphor within a metaphor, one more obvious (and also less intriguing) than the visual and philosophical booby traps Christopher Nolan laid out in last year’s “Inception.”
Here, Snyder deals purely in the fantastical, allowing his characters to escape their dismal reality in a dreamworld of gravity-defying swordfights and deafening shootouts.
The girls cope by re-imagining themselves as enslaved in a brothel.
Rebellion against their captors sends them hurtling into still more escapist realities, pitting them against a mugs’ gallery of conjured-up enemies — Nazis, dragons and cyborg samurai — from mythology and the pages of history.
What “Punch” strives to capture, more than the grisly details of their suffering at the hands of a tyrannical orderly (Oscar Isaac), is the emotional thrust of their experience — the pain, the desperation, the desire to be free.
The movie’s video-game structure lends itself to spectacle rather than dramatic interpretation, and whether it overcomes its limitations is debatable, though Snyder’s cinematography is as accomplished as his use of music.
The director has fashioned a slick commercial product, a collection of explosive vignettes featuring enough two-fisted, provocative starlets to please the boys and leave the girls pumping their fists.
Yet “Punch” — like “Watchmen” — has larger ambitions than the shoot-’em-up retreads reserved for the dog days of summer. Its emotional impact is blunted, a regrettable consequence of Snyder’s fragmented storytelling, but his vision is vivid enough to compensate, barely.
Starring Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Oscar Isaac
Written by Zack Snyder, Steve Shibuya
Directed by Zack Snyder
Running time 2 hours 2 minutes