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Suicide Squad (2016)

squadDIRECTOR: David Ayer

CAST: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Cara Delevingne, Karen Fukuhara, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Adam Beach, Scott Eastwood, Common

REVIEW:

Suicide Squad promoted itself as a kind of darker, grittier, DC equivalent of Marvel’s offbeat Guardians of the Galaxy—complete with a ragtag band of lower-tier comic book characters and a busy soundtrack of pop hits—and while I’m not prepared to place it on equal footing, it’s at least more enjoyable than DC’s previous offering this year, the dreary, borderline incoherent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (though that might sound like damning with faint praise).  The film has its own issues, but overall, despite being critically savaged, it’s a fairly enjoyable romp with enough cheeky humor and kinetic action to please many fans of the comic series.

In the wake of the events of BvS and Superman’s “death”, shady black ops task force director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) proposes a radical plan: fight fire with fire, and use imprisoned supervillains—under her supervision—as a secret weapon against other supervillains.  This “Suicide Squad” is made up of a motley crew of supervillains Waller considers “the worst of the worst”; Floyd Lawton/Deadshot (Will Smith), a hitman who never misses, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), The Joker’s wacko girlfriend, Australian thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), pyromancer El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Slipknot (Adam Beach) who “can climb anything”, man/crocodile mutant Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the spirit of ancient witch Enchantress, who is currently inhabiting the body of archaeologist Dr. June Moon (Cara Delevingne).  The government is understandably dubious of Waller’s proposal, but complications arise when Enchantress decides she doesn’t like being under government supervision and splits for Midtown City, where she also unleashes the spirit of her brother Incubus and the siblings set busily to work transforming random bystanders into their mutated minions and constructing a doomsday thingamajig that the movie doesn’t even vaguely attempt to explain (it’s one of those generic doomsday weapons that shoots a beam up into the sky and opens a portal while lightning flashes and ominous stuff like that).  Caught between a rock and a hard place, the government reluctantly gives Waller the green light, and the Suicide Squad is sent into action, with military hard-ass Captain Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who is emotionally compromised by his secret love affair with the possessed Dr. Moon, his katana-wielding bodyguard appropriately named Katana (Karen Fukuhara), and tiny bombs implanted in their necks to keep them following orders.  Meanwhile, Harley’s “pudding”, The Joker (Jared Leto), is lurking on the sidelines waiting to steal her back.

The conceit of assembling a motley crew of marginally less villainous villains and pitting them against a Big Bad is more fun than their generic mission involving Generic Doomsday Machine (that’s literally all the explanation you’re gonna get), Enchantress acting like a lesser knock-off of the title villain from the 1990s action-comedy flick The Mummy, and her brother Incubus stalking around looking like the final boss from a 1990s video game.  It’s a little jarring to see such a cartoony CGI character in a big summer motion picture after all the strides that have been made.  The opening half of the movie, despite some awkward editing (characters feel introduced about three different times), is more solid than when it turns into a generic action movie.  The movie also goes for some late emotional beats that feel unearned, as if some deeper character development was lost on the cutting room floor (allegedly, the behind-the-scenes journey from set to screen was a tumultuous one, with DC/Warner Bros. developing several different edits of the film and disputing accounts of how much control director David Ayer really had over the final product that arrived in theaters).  On the plus side, some of the action has a kinetic kick, and unlike the laboriously self-serious BvSSuicide Squad at least has a sense of humor (the lion’s share provided by Will Smith as his usual smartass self, the ever-perky Harley Quinn, and Jai Courtney’s fatuous Captain Boomerang).  Showing a sense of humor goes a long way toward making Suicide Squad a more enjoyable experience.

One minor but irksome point is that Suicide Squad displays more of DC’s adolescent, on-the-nose understanding of “dark and edgy” that was on display in BvS, this time in character design.  Again, our characters inhabit a dark and gloomy world where the sun never seems to shine and it always looks like it’s the middle of the night, everyone’s costumes are muted, darker-colored versions of their comic book selves, Harley Quinn swaps her classic harlequin costume for one displaying considerably more cleavage (doubtless to the delight of teenage boy viewers), and most gratingly of all, this blinged-out version of The Joker sports gold jewelry, metal teeth, and is covered in tattoos, including a “Damaged” tatted across his forehead (if that’s not on-the-nose, I don’t know what is).  To its credit, however, the movie isn’t afraid of sometimes lightening up (even if, considering the characters, a lot of the humor is of the dark, gallows variety), and in the climax, Harley Quinn of all people and El Diablo especially are closer to “heroic” than any of the “superheroes” were allowed to be in BvS.  

squad2Suicide Squad‘s problems are mostly not the cast’s fault, although only Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and to a lesser extent El Diablo get much in the way of fleshed-out backstories.  Will Smith is Will Smith, albeit tempering his usual wisecracking with some more serious elements (Deadshot’s soft spot for his daughter).  Margot Robbie, swapping her Aussie accent for a Brooklyn one, makes Harley Quinn a gleefully scene-stealing blend of playful, sexy, wacko, and at times oddly almost innocent.  Harley might not sport her traditional costume, but Robbie’s performance is pretty spot-on, bringing to mind a slightly more serious adaptation of the character from the Batman animated series (she utters some trademark Harley lines, including calling The Joker “puddin” and “Mister J”).  She’s certainly far removed from Jane in The Legend of Tarzan just a month earlier.  Viola Davis is the stern, cold-eyed Amanda Waller, who in a movie full of supervillains of varying degrees of evilness, might be the most Machiavellian character onscreen.  Joel Kinnaman gets the thankless role of the “straight man” Captain Flag (Kinnaman ended up with the part after Tom Hardy and Jake Gyllenhaal both turned it down), while Jay Hernandez, almost buried under tattoos, is El Diablo, whose tragic backstory might have had more poignancy if, like everyone else’s character development, it had been given more room to breathe.  Even Jai Courtney, who was wooden as a board in Terminator: Genisys, actually seems to have a personality here, and makes Captain Boomerang an enjoyable comic relief sidekick.  Disappointingly, the most grating “off” note struck by the cast is Jared Leto, who’s Joker is lame and comes off like a try-hard poser and wannabe.  Despite being top-billed and heavily-promoted in the marketing, his role is peripheral and insubstantial, but Leto’s Joker doesn’t give us a hankering to see more of him.  Granted, one might argue it’s unfair to compare him to the late Heath Ledger’s posthumously Oscar-winning version of the iconic villain, given his far less sizable role here, but even with limited screentime, Leto fails to make any impression.  The Joker is clumsily shoehorned into the movie because of his popularity (especially considering the rest of the characters have comparatively little name recognition for non-comics aficionados), but feels awkwardly-integrated, popping up at random here and there and having no real significance to the main plot; he could have been left out of the movie without really changing anything.  Ben Affleck’s Batman also makes a couple of cameos, both flashbacks relating his apprehensions of both Deadshot and Harley Quinn, and for those who stick around, he makes an unmasked appearance in the obligatory mid-credits scene.  There’s also a cameo by Ezra Miller’s Flash, and bit parts for Adam Beach (who might as well be wearing a red shirt), Scott Eastwood, David Harbour, and Common.

For David Ayer, a respected writer-director whose previous writing and/or directing credits include the cop dramas Training Day and End of Watch and the WWII film FurySuicide Squad is not up to the standard one might reasonably expect from his filmography, and has few distinctive fingerprints on it.  There are isolated moments, such as the flashback where the Batmobile chases Joker’s purple Lamborghini and interrupts he and Harley’s “date night” joyride, that have a comic book feel, and at least one striking visual shot, after The Joker and Harley dive into an acid vat and the bleeding colors of their clothes swirl around them in a cloud, but overall the direction is competent but workmanlike.  The choppy editing issues, while not as sloppy as BvS, are still present.  Even with Suicide Squad not being a mess on the previous entry’s level, nor is it a resounding success, and DC’s “Cinematic Universe” is off to a shaky start in its rushed and haphazard game of belated catch-up with Marvel’s own flourishing version.  In any case, by getting us to root for the bad guys, Suicide Squad does something a little different and off the beaten path, but its quirkiness doesn’t completely compensate for a generic plot and half-baked narrative.  In a year of overwhelming (or should I say underwhelming) mediocrity, it’s more enjoyable than some theatrical options, but it’s not likely to be the blockbuster of the summer.

* * 1/2

 

 

 

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