David Ayer's highly anticipated antihero action extravaganza Suicide Squad begins with such promise-full of such boisterous, unruly energy and mash-up devil-may-care style-that its eventual descent into the doldrums of formulaic familiarity feels that much more disappointing. The film as a whole, like this year's other big Warner/DC comic book tentpole Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, is not nearly as bad as the critical outcry would seem to suggest, but neither is it the misunderstood masterwork that some of its most ardent fans think it is (or want it to be-many of the complaints about the film's critical response appeared online before anyone other than critics and industry insiders had seen it).
Based on John Ostrander's 1987 comic book series that assembled a revolving team of DC Comic villains as the U.S. government's covert, last-ditch option in the worst of situations, Suicide Squad has a great premise-a kind of Dirty Dozen-esque celebration of bad guys putting their worst tendencies to use for a greater good. It tickles our culture's underlying, guilty-pleasure love of villains by putting them front and center and allowing them to continue being bad while saving the world from something worse. It reminds us that much of what we prize in heroes is not goodness and decency, but rather the ability to direct violence for our benefit. As many scholars of the Western genre have pointed out, the only real distinction between the good gunslinger and the bad gunslinger is the way they sling their guns.
Ayer's film begins with a punchy prelude that introduces us to all the major villain-heroes, who are imprisoned in the fictional Belle Reve Penitentiary for various crimes against humanity (each character arrives with a familiar punch of classic rock, sometimes ironically, sometimes pointedly). There is Floyd Lawton, also known as Deadshot (Will Smith), a lethal assassin whose only weakness is his love for his 11-year-old honors student daughter; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a former psychiatrist known as Dr. Harleen Quinzel who was turned psychotic by the Joker (Jared Leto), with whom she is in love; Chato Santana, also known as El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), an L.A. gang member with pyrokinetic abilities; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Australian thief with no scruples whatsoever; and Waylon Jones, also known as Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) because, well, he looks like a giant crocodile. This motley crew is drawn together by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a ruthless government operative who has been arguing for the use of so-called "metahumans" in military operations, and it is led by Army Special Forces officer Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who has the convenient ability to kill any unruly or disobedient member of the Suicide Squad by blowing his or her head off with a device that has been inserted into each of their necks.
Waller puts the team together and sends them into action against the Enchantress, an ages-old witch who was dug up by Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne), an archeologist whose body the Enchantress possesses and uses to bring back to life her ancient and powerful brother. Together, the witchy sibs plan to do something big and terrible and destructive in the heart of a major urban center, into which the Suicide Squad must march, guns a'blazin'. Flag has a particularly strong motivation to utilize the squad to take care of business because he is in love with Dr. Moone, but unfortunately that dramatic impetus is not nearly enough to compensate for what a boring, rote villain the Enchantress turns out to be. In a film that is at its best when it is gritty and dirty like a '70s urban crime thriller, her presence demands tons of computer-generated swirling fire and clouds and debris and general visual messiness that is so familiar as to be almost numbing. Her reasons for destroying the world are muddy and uninteresting, which is perhaps purposeful because it keeps her from stealing the spotlight away from the villainous baddies in the squad, whose various personalities intersect and clash throughout the film with expected flare. Unfortunately, the film gets less and less interesting as it progresses, with the internal dynamics of the squad eventually giving way to a focus on completing the mission at hand.
Ayer was an interesting and inspired choice to write and direct Suicide Squad since he has worked primarily on gritty contemporary crime thrillers. He started as a screenwriter for street-level thrillers like The Fast and the Furious (2001), Training Day (2001), and Dark Blue (2002), before moving into the director's chair, where he has most recently helmed the shakicam police procedural End of Watch (2012), the umpteenth Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle Sabotage (2014), and the World War II tank drama Fury (2014). He has managed both big action scenes and tense interpersonal struggle set against a backdrop of crime and violence, and at its best Suicide Squad draws on that pedigree, turning what could have been a cartoonish lark into a homicidal black comedy in which the worst of the worst are the only people who can save the world. His casting is generally excellent, as Will Smith brings a darker shade of his usual charm to Deadshot, while Margot Robbie blossoms into a full-on movie star as the crazed Harley Quinn, whose complete lack of predictability makes her as compelling as she is maniacal (she also gets to display some all-important vulnerability late in the game, which humanizes her much more than you might expect).
Of course, what everyone has been talking about for the past year is Jared Leto's take on the Joker, not only because he is playing arguably the most famous villain in the history of comic books, but also because he was last played on-screen in an Oscar-winning turn by the late Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008), a film that quickly set the bar for all subsequent comic book films. Leto plays the character quite differently, eschewing Ledger's sense of anarchic abandon in favor of a more conventional cackling criminality (he is even referened at one point as "the Clown Prince of Crime"). While Ledger's Joker was a terrorist who just wanted to see the world burn, Leto's Joker is a sleek, tattooed crime boss with silver teeth who revels in amassing power, rather than stripping it from others (he seems to love designer clothes and gold chains as much as inflicting pain). Much has been made of Leto's Method approach to the role, but it doesn't come to much as the Joker is, at best, a peripheral supporting character who, while certainly intriguing while on-screen, isn't missed much when he disappears for long stretches of the story.
And that's a real problem, given that the story leads us from that fantastic opening prelude, through numerous action sequences punctuated with all kinds of hyperbolic slow-motion and bullet time (all trimmed to market-friendly PG-13 acceptability, which means that all the exploding heads and garroted bodies don't bleed), to a busy-busy climax that is all light and thunder and emotional hollowness. There is much potential in Suicide Squad, and while some of that potential is squandered here, it isn't a hard sell to think that, with a better villain and a tighter, more meaningful story, these bad boys and girls might make a real impact.
Copyright 2016 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Warner Bros.
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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