Jena Malone is a fine actress, with street cred up the wazoo, and a chin that remains an endless fascination to me. Which makes it all the more interesting when she takes on a more commercial project.
Sadly her instincts in these cases can be hit-and-miss. CONTACT was cool, apart from the crazy ending. STEP MOM was hokey, mawkish nonsense that'll make your grannie cry. Her last fling with Hollywood was jungle horror THE RUINS. She was pretty good in it, turning a token 'final girl' into an untrustworthy, mixed up twenty-something. THE RUINS could have been great, but it was about killer weeds. So I laughed at it.
However, just as her performance in THE RUINS was rather better than it deserved, so it goes with Zack Snyder's idontknowhathehellitsabout movie.
Now I'm not suggesting her performance is Oscar calibre, but she certainly made me care a damn sight more about Rocket than Emily Browning's Babydoll. A part of this is in the writing. Generally speaking, it sucks. HOWEVER, intentional or not (hey we can hope), Malone is considerably better served by the script (okay stop laughing) than most of the other actors. Her characterization and backstory are also better served by the fact that writer-director extraordinaire Sack, I mean, Zack Snyder does not show said backstory in flashback, thus allowing the viewer to imagine what could have landed her in a brothel/madhouse/whateverthehellitis, without the ridiculously over-stylized aesthetic he brings to Babydoll's "tragic" past (although I can understand how she's so traumatized. I'd be pretty screwed up too if the first twenty years of my life were telescoped into a music video).
Another factor is looks. Without meaning to sound cruel, Malone is not traditionally good-looking. Which is not to say she is not good-looking or sexy, she is just not as idealized. She stands out from the other actresses, who are a little more along the lines of classical notions of feminine beauty (certainly the kind you find in a brothel/comic book/video game/whathefuckisthispos). For this rather superficial reason (hey remember what we're dealing with here) Rocket comes off as a little bit more relatable.
The final factor is the performance itself. As I said before, it ain't perfect. There are (quite) a few moments where she seems to strain with the "dire-logue" Snyder gives her. While I may be suffering from the delayed effects of some forgotten hallucinogen, here's my take on why Rocket works and the rest of the movie doesn't:
As I said before, while the script is poor, it does give Malone's character the barest pieces of an arc (or at least more of an arc than Browning), and the actress does manage, however inconsistently, to produce a more solid characterization than her peers.
At first, Malone plays her as a sarcastic and less tough version of her sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish). However, as the story progresses (READER: What story?) there are several key moments in which our perceptions of Rocket are forced to change. The moment after Babydoll rescues her from being raped is a great little character moment. She attempts to laugh it off and resume her sarcastic veneer, yet in the following scene we see her lose the fake smile as she turns to get a glass of water with deadened eyes. When she tells her sister that she can't "take much more of this", Malone utters the line with a tremulous voice, as though she fighting the mother of all panic attacks. There is a sense of fragility about Rocket which is lacking from the other girls. Rocket seems to be the only character with a believable reaction to being stuck in a brothel/WTFdontcarenomore - and that makes us (or me, at least) care.
I don't want to overburden Malone with too much praise. If the other actresses had been better served with more developed characters, and the whole fantasy action crap ripped out, I'm sure they would have delivered proper performances, instead of striking manga poses. However, as it stands, her performance makes SUCKER PUNCH just a mite more tolerable.