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Punch drunk 

Director Zack Snyder tries everything in 'Sucker Punch.'

'SUCKER PUNCH': Emily Browning (center) stars.
  • 'SUCKER PUNCH': Emily Browning (center) stars.

It turns out that Zack Snyder, who slathered the screen with id in "300" and "The Watchmen," was in fact modeling Spartan restraint throughout those pictures. We know this because in "Sucker Punch" the director/writer/producer finally just slumps forward on the throttle. What's your flavor? Twenty-year-olds in corsets and short skirts with semi-automatics? Done. What about shoot-'em-up action sequences? With, like, titanic samurai or mechanized Nazi zombies or dragons and orcs or glossy cyborgs? 'Cause we've got that. How about a haphazard blend of steampunk, anime, fantasy and Hot Topic haircuts? Or hyper-literal pop song selections — a cover of "Where Is My Mind?" during a tour of an asylum, "Army of Me" in a one-woman battle scene? Is there anything Snyder could stand to leave out of this stewpot?

But then, would you want him to? Scrape away the CGI sequences and there's scant little story here, really. A diminutive blonde with a China doll face (Emily Browning) is committed to the worst mental asylum in all of Vermont by an equally wretched stepfather. There she gets the name of Baby Doll, per the imagined reality that she and other patients/inmates adopt to cope with their surroundings. We learn that the sleazy administrator (Oscar Isaac) is willing to accept bribes to assign brutal, irreversible treatments. So Baby Doll knows she has only days to orchestrate an escape, with the help of other young women possessed of the finest bone structure in New England: sisters Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone); Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung).

Once they enter their imagined world, they are dancers compelled to delight scumbags of all stripes, and it's in this realm that the great majority of "Sucker Punch" unfolds. The journey goes deeper yet when Baby Doll realizes she has the power to mesmerize everyone around her with her dances, during which she lapses into gonzo action sequences that symbolize — well, some sort of inner reservoir of ass-kicking. The story nests two and three layers deep so often that it comes to feel like "One Thousand and One Nights," with Baby Doll's subconscious playing Scheherazade for us. This leads to some awfully versatile action sequences, but also gives the movie the ultimate free pass, since in dreams, no one ever really gets hurt. Your attention will wander the first time Baby Doll is kicked through a temple door and across a huge chamber, and face-plows a ditch through stone and earth, only to pop up as though she'd merely bungled a monkey-bars dismount.

Snyder's approach is two parts bubble gum, three parts steel. Sexual assaults are implicitly threatened, though never shown; the most explicitly violent moments in the story involve killing monsters or robots, and when people become the targets, bloodshed is minimal. Maybe therein lies the director's restraint: Dude still had to hold this carnival to a PG-13. If you can get past the sense that you're watching someone else play a video game — one that even has an prescribed list of items the girls will need in order to escape — you'll probably get some kicks out of "Sucker Punch." But I defy you to describe the characters' personalities in much detail an hour later.

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