In the boxing ring, a sucker punch is a devastating, unexpected blow that sends an unwary opponent sprawling across the canvas, dazed and confused.
On the big screen, director Zack Snyder’s action adventure Sucker Punch is more of a gentle poke in the ribs that renders us dazed and thoroughly bemused.
There’s no doubting that Snyder (300, Watchmen) can orchestrate a miasma of dazzling computer-generated visuals to a pounding rock soundtrack, and he can choreograph balletic action sequences laden with slow-motion leaps and somersaults.
The opening sequence here, in which the beleaguered heroine protects her little sister from their abusive stepfather, is a triumph of style set to a melancholic version of Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), sung in whispering tones by lead actress Emily Browning.
The film’s title forms from rivulets of rain on a car window, melting away as the vehicle speeds off into the distance.
Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya gorge our senses with visions of fire-breathing dragons, gargantuan samurais and reanimated zombie soldiers, but they also starve our brains with a flimsy, nonsensical tale of reality versus fantasy.
Characterisation and narrative coherence are completely redundant.
Babydoll (Emily Browning) is institutionalised at Lennox House For The Mentally Insane by her cruel stepfather (Gerard Plunkett), who wants the young woman lobotomised so he can get his grubby hands on the family fortune.
Abandoned at the mercy of head orderly Blue (Oscar Isaac) and psychiatrist Dr Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), Babydoll seeks refuge in her dreams.
She imagines the facility as a brothel, where Madam Gorski trains the girls to dance for gentlemen callers and Blue creams off the profits.
Fellow inmates Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) are slowly drawn into Babydoll’s alternate universe, where they hatch a daring escape plan.
A wise man (Scott Glenn) advises Babydoll to seek out five treasures - a map, fire, a knife, a key and a mysterious final item - that will help the girls become mistresses of their destiny.
Sucker Punch mashes together influences and motifs from anime, video games and popular culture to realise fantastical realms including 15th century feudal Japan, the trenches of the First World War and a futuristic alien world.
The ramshackle plot is merely a hook for the director’s bag of digital tricks, promoting a message of female empowerment - so long as the heroines achieve their freedom in corsets, basques and panties.
Browning and co look fighting fit in the physically demanding skirmishes and they wring every last tear from their bodies to make us feel something for their underwritten damsels.
Emotion is bludgeoned into submission by Snyder’s directorial ambition, every action set piece more outlandish than the next.
What you see is all you get.
By Damon Smith
:: SWEARING :: NO SEX :: VIOLENCE :: RATING: 4/10
Released: April 1 (UK & Ireland), 109 mins