Suicide Squad review


Suicide_Squad_(film)_PosterIs there anything more difficult to forgive than wasted potential? Suicide Squad is a fine movie. It’s not great, and it’s not awful. It’s not even the worst superhero movie from this year (that honor goes to X-Men: Apocalypse or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, the latter of which I actually forgot existed until I looked at the list of films I’ve seen this year), but it feels like it was very close to being something truly special. And that’s why it leaves a bitter feeling on the tongue.

As I said in my Geek Primer post, “the Suicide Squad, formally known as Task Force X, is basically a work release program for supervillains. Captured criminals participate in high-risk black ops missions for the United States government in exchange for reduced sentences.” In the film, the team consists of expert marksman and assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), the mad Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Australian stereotype-gone-bad Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), the fire-wielding El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and the reptilian Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). They are led by soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and are assembled by government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to take out The Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), a malevolent spirit possessing the body of an archeologist. Meanwhile the Joker (Jared Leto) tries to reunite with Harley Quinn.

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The first act of Suicide Squad is where the film really works the best, as it rips through character biographies by way of flashback under the guise of Waller’s proposal to initiate Task Force X. Each of these flashbacks may not quite work as their own short film, but it feels fresh because it has the most stylish visual filmmaking of the entire movie, and because the fast pace is something usually lacking in most super hero films. Alas, the film grinds to a halt soon after, as we find the Squad members reestablished in their Belle Reve prison home and the exposition required to set up the mission. And by the third act, it is only mildly distinguished from The Avengers or any other movie where the superheroes fight faceless bad guys before fighting the main antagonist under a swirl of light reaching up to the sky. It’s a tired form and visual in just four years because it feels omnipresent, but alone it wouldn’t be a problem.

One major issue with the film is the lack of a central character or relationship to act as connective tissue. Ayer’s script wants to give equal time to Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and Amanda Waller, but only Deadshot gets any scenes where we get to feel things from his point of view. Part of the appeal of characters like Harley Quinn and Amanda Waller is that they are kind of unknowable, because they are unpredictable and could not care less what the outside world thinks of them. But because the film doesn’t spend time to establish anything about the other characters, we get quips as substitutes. Rick Flagg, being the most “normal” character could be the protagonist, as his fear of Harley, his respect for Waller, and his odd kinship with Deadshot would make for an interesting film (basically Guardians of the Galaxy with him in Chris Pratt’s role), but we are left with everything surface level and nothing deeper.

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Without this connection, the film feels especially choppy, patched together using rapid fire music cues. There’s something like 37 songs in this film, ranging from oldies like “Sympathy for the Devil” to new songs created for the film. Many of them feel like they were added over scenes that they were never intended to be used it, but that may be the way the IMAX mix sounded. And none of the songs are outright bad choices, but none of them create anything greater than the sum of the parts. Nothing half as masterful as Justin Lin’s use of Beastie Boys in Star Trek Beyond, or his Fast/Furious films.

In fact, I thought a lot about Justin Lin while watching Suicide Squad. Not just because Beyond leverages its cast so well, but because the Fast/Furious series is basically about a bunch of criminals who come together as a…family. Which is what Suicide Squad should be, based on the way the film was marketed. With bold, borderline garish colors and a loud aesthetic, there isn’t much in the film that actually matches that feeling. Writer/director David Ayer is known for his gritty filmmaking style (Training Day, End of Watch, Fury), not the kind of playful villainy we’ve seen from other filmmakers. A film like Suicide Squad either needs to try to make the audience uncomfortable for sympathizing with villains (like Fight Club, Drive) or make them relatable antiheroes. More Leon and less Patrick Bateman. Either of these are valid choices for this film, but it can’t do both. Parts of the film feel like they should have been in a gritty, serious film, and the rest feel like they should have come from Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass or Kingsman.

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This film does have some bright spots, however. There are lots of fun moments sprinkled throughout (which also underlines some of the other frustrations), which really demonstrate the potential this film had. With one glaring exception, the film nails its interpretation of these oddball DC characters. Deadshot works surprisingly well as Will Smith’s usual action movie persona with a bit of gruff added at the edges. Margot Robbie naturally steals the show as Harley Quinn. Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller is justification enough for this film to exist. She may be the most perfect superhero film casting since Robert Downey, Jr. and I hope we get to see much more of her. And reinterpreting Captain Boomerang as a bogan (the Australian flavor chav/white trash stereotype) is actually pretty brilliant no matter how much I would have loved to see his ridiculous classic costume on screen.

And then there is Jared Leto. His Joker really isn’t in the film all that much, but it is clear that the filmmakers love him. There’s no point for him to be in the movie really, and his particular interpretation of the character relies on a sort of aggressive macho sexuality, which is very odd. It also flips the script on the Joker/Harley Quinn relationship so that instead of indifference to Harley, the Joker has romantic feelings for her. There’s no upside to this, and his inclusion in the film makes it feel even more overstuffed.

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It is worth noting that this is the first major superhero film to feature four female characters in major and supporting roles, with Harley, Waller, the Enchantress, and Katana (Karen Fukuhara) all getting plenty of screen time. While Katana doesn’t really have much to do, her presence is welcome. The Enchantress very much feels like a generic villain, nothing about her is actually fleshed out. Harley Quinn is clearly the breakout, but her relationship with the Joker is never shown as damaging as it probably should be. But again, we come to Amanda Waller. This is her movie. She has the most consistent characterization of anyone in the film, and Viola Davis makes her feel like a whole person and not a stereotype. She doesn’t flinch at any point, and is the most resilient character of all.

One of the reasons that the concept of the Suicide Squad is so rich is that it offers many themes within its core concept, especially ones that are extremely relevant to events happening in our world. The concept involves prisoners who go on suicide missions to reduce their life sentences by a decade, abused by a system that arguably failed them (if we’re being sympathetic to their plight), plus the idea of the US government using black ops forces on American soil in a world where Wonder Woman and the Flash are presumably hanging out. These ideas are all endemic and even nodded to in the film, but put aside in favor of having the Joker writhe about in some knives and make out with Harley Quinn in a vat of chemicals.

All of these, combined with a textbook case of marketing not lining up with the actual film contribute to the sense of disappointment that plagues Suicide Squad. And yet I ultimately enjoyed the film, despite its flaws. There’s some fun to be had here, but that could just be the comic geek part of my brain still getting tickled by the idea of seeing these characters writ large and taken seriously. Party like it’s 2003 (the year Ben Affleck’s Daredevil film came out).

Suicide Squad opens in Philly theaters today.

Official site.

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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