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SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) review

August 7, 2016

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written by: David Ayer
produced by: Charles Roven and Richard Suckle
directed by: David Ayer
rated: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language)
runtime: 123 min.
U.S. release date: August 5, 2016

 

Before “Wonder Woman” and “Justice League” come out next year, the plan was to take a little break from the world-building (er, brand creation) Warner Bros/DC provided in the recent “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice“, and just enjoy a crazy summer action flick with a crew of rag-tag bad guys. That was my plan, but it doesn’t seem to be the same as anyone involved in making this movie.  Sure, “Suicide Squad”, written and directed by David Ayer (“Sabotage“, “Fury” and “End of Watch“) is crazy, but there’s something off about it and any traceable fun is short-lived. It’s a movie clothed with dull and clumsy storytelling (emphasis on the telling) and a schizophrenic tone that is off the rails. There’s just not enough going on in this movie to discern itself from anything we’ve seen before. That’s unfortunate, considering it already resembles too much. 

Superman may be dead (oh settle down, he’ll return with a mullet), yet the threat of another metahuman smackdown in a major city is still very real. Government official, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), has a plan and she implores the suits in control to consider her idea: assemble a team of hand-picked incarcerated criminals, all highly dangerous and volatile and offer to reduce their sentence if they deal with any metahuman occurrence or die.  She’s got it all planned out as she pulls up the dossiers of all the imprisoned candidates (all of whom are conveniently housed in Belle Reve (that’s French for “beautiful dream” penitentiary in Louisiana), even calling the team Task Force X.

 

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Reluctant at first, the big wigs concede and Waller immediately assigns Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinsman, who serves as our gateway character) to head an unpredictable team consisting of the following: expert hitman Floyd Lawton aka Deadshot (Will Smith), former Arkham Asylum psychiatrist and current loony girlfriend of Joker, Harleen Quinzel aka Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Aussie assassin Digger Harkness aka Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), reptilian thug, Waylon Jones aka Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), escape artist, Christopher Weiss aka Slipknot (Adam Beach, in a thankless role), former East LA gang banger, Chato Santano aka El Diablo (Jay Hernandez)  and archeologist, Dr. June Moone aka Flag’s girlfriend, who is currently possessed by Enchantress (Cara Delevingue) an ancient witch who’s beyond ticked that Waller is controlling her against her will by keeping her green heart in a box.

To assist in keeping the team in check, Waller assigns sword-wielding martial artist, Tatsu Yamashiro aka Katanna (Karen Fukuhara) to serve as Flagg’s mysterious bodyguard. To persuade and motivate these supervillains Waller has a nano bomb injected in each member, making sure they’re aware she can detonate it with an app on her phone, killing them instantly (someone call John Carpenter) – if they decide not to cooperate or bail altogther. So either they serve the government and get a reduced sentence or die.

Some threat has to occur though in order for this newly formed team to be tested (or else what will this movie be about) and that’s exactly what happens in Midway City. This is where Enchantress has shaken her human host, resurrecting her powerful brother, Incubus (Alain Chanoine), with a plan to destroy the world together out of revenge for being imprisoned for so long (cuz it’s the world’s fault). This “Suicide Squad” (as Flag calls it), is sent in to take on Enchantress and retrieve a high-profile target, encountering deadly supernatural forces while dealing with their own conflicting personalities. Meanwhile, The Joker (Jared Leto) is determined to retrieve (rescue?) his girlfriend, which adds more mayhem, death and destruction in the city.

 

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If you didn’t follow all that, you’re not alone. The story told in “Suicide Squad” is choppy, incoherent and doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but I’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s go over a few things which should preface my mindset as I entered the screening of this movie….

  • If this is the first review of mine you’ve ever read, it may be helpful to know that I’m a comic book fan as well as a film enthusiast (not just superheroes, but the medium overall) and if you’re a longtime reader, that serves as a reminder.
  • This incarnation of the source material was made popular by writer John Ostrander (who has a nice nod in this movie), when he introduced a second version of the team back in 1988 (the first version of Suicide Squad was introduced in 1959 as a monster-fighting war team led by Rick Flag) which was and still is a cool concept that I’ve always liked.
  • A couple other reminders: no previous knowledge of a movie’s source material should be needed to enjoy a movie – likewise, no movie should be “for the fans”. A movie should be for anyone and enjoyed by anyone.
  • Like “Marvel’s Avengers”, this movie is doing something that’s never been done before – taking several comic book characters and teaming them up for an action-packed, live-action blockbuster – only with villains. Again, that’s a cool concept with potential.

So, right from the beginning, something was noticeably off. Before the movie’s title appears there is what seems like three different openings – one introducing Deadshot, another introducing Harley Quinn and then one which gives us to Amanda Waller, who is briefing the suits (and viewers) who these bad guys are. What felt off is how abrupt these three openings were – as if Ayer couldn’t decide how to start his movie, so he took three of his favorites scenes and threw them together. Now, these openings did include the three best performances from this ensemble cast (Smith, Robbie and Davis), but this approach felt more suitable for an ending rather than a confident opening. I didn’t mind so much the exposition that followed (kind of understandable when introducing characters to an audience and there’s no time to naturally get to know them), although the stat list for each character that pops up on the screen has been done recently in both “Creed” and “Deadpool“, so that seemed a tad gimmicky, something solely for the audience that takes you out of the story.

There are flashback sequences for each character within the first hour, that reveal what dirty deeds they’ve done and how they were captured, which provides us with some interesting background on them and an idea why Waller is hand-picking them. For the most part, I liked the flashbacks for those reasons – seeing Batman (Ben Affleck) apprehend Deadshot and Harley (on separate occasions) was cool, since Affleck’s portrayal was one of the few strengths of “Batman v Superman”, but the brief cameo of Flash (Ezra Miller) stopping Captain Boomerang felt like it was filmed and inserted last-minute. Why does that matter? Because it’s yet another jarring snippet in a movie that’s already stockpiled with a ton of characters. I wasn’t a fan of Deadshot’s background, which establishes that he has an 11-year-old daughter who has his heart. That’s info that chips away at the lethal hitman persona, which doesn’t help us envision this character as a legitimate threat. It’s an element you bring into a sequel maybe, but not the movie where the audience is just getting to know who this alleged bad guy is. It seems too cliché and too Will Smith to work for the character. Yes, Deadshot had a daughter he looked after in the comic, but I can only think that because Will Smith was involved, they didn’t want to make him out to be too bad of a bad guy.

 

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There’s also Harley’s background with Joker, which informs who she currently is, sort of. She probably gets the most flashbacks, which have some notable callback images for viewers well-versed in the comics.  The history Ayer shows of Harley is slightly based on the origin touched on in Batman: the Animated Series from the early 90s (created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm), but it’s also somewhat confusing – did Leto’s Joker torture and manipulate this young woman, turning her into a mad criminal accomplice/sidekick or was she already unhinged and he just nudged her over the edge? Two of her flashbacks seem to contradict each other, leaving us confused (well, me at least) as to what series of events made her the murderous villain she is. Despite her confusing background, Robbie is an absolute blast as Harley Quinn. Sure, her New Jersey accent comes and goes, but she has that crazed look and her sassy body language down and counters the serious macho attitudes that surround her, adding a needed levity to the group.

And then there’s this incarnation of Joker. As reportedly method as Leto is, he really doesn’t have enough of a part here to make an impact – which is fine with me, considering the movie isn’t called “Joker”. The Oscar-winner relies too heavily on his character’s look – a mashup of an old-school mobster and hip-hop rapper clothed with the formal wear or blinged-out garish colors that respectively resembles each – seems to overpower his characterization. The voice and cadence he finds for the role seems to channel a cross between 90s Jim Carrey and Heath Ledger’s award-winning take on the character. His work is different and larger than any live-action Joker we’ve previously seen, but he’s not nearly as disturbing as Ledger was and, at times his multi-tattooed and gangsta-grilled tin smile are just laughable (as is his Joker laugh) – only not in a nightmarish way. Some of Harley’s flashbacks show what kind of twisted relationship she and Joker share as well as what kind of presence they have in the criminal world (of Gotham or Midway City, it wasn’t clear), which is where we meet another crime boss, Monster T (Common, as yet another tattooed and pierced character), but their love for each other is more implied than shown.

Surprisingly, I found Hernandez’s El Diablo to be one of the more interesting characters of the Squad. He is actually the only one to have a discernible character arc (not that that’s needed but it’s certainly welcome) and winds up playing a pivotal role in the story’s conclusion. Despite having a clichéd backstory where he’s found kneeling and holding his dead wife while wailing at the sky above (a scene we’ve seen in these movies ad naseum), I appreciated Hernandez’s portrayal of his character’s internal struggle. El Diablo is rehabilitated and didn’t want to use his flame-manipulating powers at all, until he’s pushed to and then eventually sees the good he can do with the powers he felt he was cursed with.

Out of the other Squad members, Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc come across as waisted filler as the requisite Wild Card and Strong Guy. It still feels frustrating that Hollywood is trying pass off Jai Courtney as a thing, but his manic and curious work here feels more “method” than Leto. He looks like a mentally unstable homeless guy with a penchant for boomerangs (yet I don’t recall seeing one come back to him), drinking and keeping a pink stuffed animal with him at all times. Courtney’s work here is nonsense and Ayer doesn’t care to make him a threat to anyone. As Croc, Akinnuoye-Agbaje is completely lost in make-up that just doesn’t adequately communicate there’s a person underneath the scaly features. His look is awkward, especially once he takes off his shirt, which reveals how his neck and head seem huge compared to his torso and when he’s not grunting, the lines he utters are purely for comic relief. Maybe Ayer’s isn’t giving enough screen time to all of the characters he has to juggle, but these two especially seemed like they were just getting scratched off a checklist.

 

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What’s missing is background info on Waller. We know she’s a government agent, but her title or credentials are never given, so it’s a mystery how she’s come to be such a cold-hearted, well-informed authority on metahumans. Providing something on her background would have benefited the movie greatly and solidified why she’s just as much of a threat as anyone she’s recruiting. At times, Davis may come across as bored, even though it’s communicated as annoyance from Waller, but ultimately she proves herself to be a force to be reckoned with – except she makes a dumb move that essentially allows for the creation of the movie’s villain. Why she thought she could contain a magical being who can teleport anywhere she wants is baffling. There’s a vague subplot that indicates Waller was behind getting Flag to romantically fall for Dr. Moone, in a way to manipulate them both, but that seems too unpredictable of a plan (we’re told so in exposition, so it must be true) for someone as smart and egotistical as Waller.

But the biggest problem Ayer’s story has is the rise of the Enchantress and Incubus, the villainous siblings as the main threat. Delevingne plays really creepy and mysterious with her stares, but her character’s motives are woefully unclear and things get worse once she pulls her CGI-leaden brother into the mix.  She winds up making what looks to be a temple out of a Midway City skyscraper and turns into Zuhl from the 1984 “Ghostbusters”. Their depiction of villainy resembles characters you’d find in a video game, where you’re trying different action combination moves to take out the big bad witch and monster. Unfortunately, the two come across as unintentionally silly, although sillier still are the faceless minions Enchantress creates by making out with random people, turning them into zombie-like creatures that attach the Squad and the Seal Team that work alongside them led by GQ Edwards (Scott Eastwood). Automatically, I thought of how often big-budget will create armies of robots or aliens in order to justify mass carnage. The enemy is not human, so it doesn’t matter how high the body count rises. Speaking of which, despite the movie’s PG-13 rating, there are gallons of bullet shells hitting the ground

The songs used in “Suicide Squad” are either overly familiar classic rock tunes (among them, Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”, a version of “House of the Rising Sun”, Panic! at the Disco covering “Bohemian Rhapsody” and good grief another use of “Spirit in the Sky”) or hip-hop/indie rock mashups like “Sucker for Pain” from rappers Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa, Logic, and Ty Dolla $ign, plus Imagine Dragons and X Ambassadors (yes, I had to look that up), all turned up to eleven with a brazen attempt at selling a soundtrack. The last thing I want to do while watching a movie I’m trying to get into is for the filmmakers to try to get me to purchase a soundtrack – yet, that’s what watching “Suicide Squad” feels like and aggressively so. It worked for “Guardians of the Galaxy” since the music was successfully incorporated into the movie, but here it seems kind of like how Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” used popular music in a distracting way.

If “Suicide Squad” were to really go where it needs to be, it would’ve been released as an R-rating volatile powder keg of a movie, but Warner Bros. is too scared it wouldn’t be a big hit. (News Flash: it’s going to make a ton of money, regardless). Instead, we get back-to-back sequences of familiar exposition, flashbacks, set-ups and a climactic battle with the requisite blue beam of light shooting up into the night sky. The movie is noisy and obnoxious, like many of its characters, but it never really connects its characters to viewers, try as it might. “Suicide Squad” is a lot like the characters on the unstable titular team – it’s not awful, but it’s not good at being the kind of bad it could be.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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