by Philip Price
Don't believe everything you hear. That would be the first thing I would tell people if they were to ask what I thought about the latest entry in the DC Comics extended universe as funded by Warner Brothers. Don't believe everything you hear in that “Suicide Squad” isn't nearly as terrible as those early reviews have made it out to be, but don't believe everything you saw in those trailers that made you think this might be a new super hero masterpiece either. “Suicide Squad” has its flaws. Plenty of them in fact-the biggest perpetrator being the convoluted story that ultimately does so many circles around itself that it becomes a pointless exercise in power for Amanda Waller (as played by the wonderful Viola Davis). “Suicide Squad” also has its fair share of highlights as well-most of them concerning the effort the cast is putting into making this group of misfits feel like a family when the script gives them little to work with. This is all very disappointing mind you as writer/director David Ayer (who wrote “Training Day” and who wrote and directed the likes of “End of Watch” and “Fury”) clearly has a knack for these types of characters and putting such characters in high-stakes situations that bring out qualities and traits viewers will find endearing and affecting despite potentially being revolting. The issue here is that Ayer seemingly felt the need to include so many characters that he let his storytelling techniques get away from him and instead decided to give us an introductory hour where we are presented with each of the ten (count 'em ten) main characters as well as how they all ended up together and walking into the plot device that is both meant to unite them and that could have also been completely avoided if the idea to bring them together was rejected in the first place. There are interesting ideas aplenty here and the film very well could have explored the difference between bad and evil and how many bad things one has to do or ends up doing before they cross that line. Instead, Ayer uses this opportunity to bring together his comic book version of the Dirty Dozen and expose them at face value, for what they are, and how they work together. Just so we're all on the same page-that would have been fine. I don't have an issue, especially at this stage of the game, with a DC film not leaning too hard on the philosophical stuff and instead focusing more on simply having fun, but even in doing this Ayer's story does itself no favors by making everything interconnected to the point the film renders itself irrelevant when all he really needed to do was give these usual foes a formidable one of their own.
Let's take a few steps back, though. Let's go back to the beginning because for the first hour or so and more specifically the first half hour I was genuinely unsure of where all the bad press was coming from. I hate to write a reactionary review of sorts, but given the unavoidably savage headlines I saw following the drop of the embargo on Tuesday it was nearly impossible to go into the film without some preconceived notion of what we might be getting or how much expectations should be tempered. From the fantastic trailers to the involvement of Ayer (Hey! this one doesn't have Snyder! It may actually stand a chance with critics!) to the outright phenomenal cast there was so much potential, so much talent that it was something of a question of, "how could this even be bad?" and the answer is that it's not really that bad. Granted, it's not great and it certainly could have been. There's a fair share of blame to go around for why such an interesting idea went partially to waste, but by no means is this the train wreck it's been made out to be. I would still much prefer to watch “Suicide Squad” a hundred times over before viewing “Green Lantern” or any one of the three most recent “Fantastic Four” features (and I didn't wholly despise Trank's version, either). Enough with the comparing and defending though-let us discuss what works and what doesn't by outlining the plot Ayer has constructed for his villains to take part in. In doing this we immediately step into one of the biggest downfalls the film has in that its story and its main antagonist is clumsy, borderline incoherent the further it gets along, and worst of all-has little impact on the characters involved much less the audience.
The notable thing with “Suicide Squad” though is that these glaring issues don't become apparent until the second hour of the film when the actual plot takes over and more or less takes an aircraft that was cruising along nicely at an average altitude and nosedives it into the nearest metropolitan area. We are immediately brought up to speed on the fact this very much takes place in the same universe as “Batman V Superman,” where (SPOILER ALERT!) Superman is dead and the government is panicking and unsure what to do about the rise in population of these "meta-humans" and are concerned about the "what ifs" if one were to come along without the moral code Superman shared with them. In response to this the ruthless, high-ranking government official that is Waller uses her political connections, intelligence, and intimidation to achieve her idea of putting together a group of the "worst of the worst" so that they have people with extraordinary abilities whom they can bribe with reduced sentences and the like in order to get things done with the caveat of if they fail they lose nothing but an inmate that was on death row anyway. They control each of the members of the Squad by implanting a bomb in their necks and threatening to blow their heads off if they even consider making a run for it or turning their weapons on leader and soldier, Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman).
This is all well and good and as Waller explains her idea to two other government higher-ups (David Harbour and Ted Whittall) she goes through the roster of her desired team members giving way to flashes of backstory first around Deadshot AKA Floyd Lawton (Will Smith). Deadshot is the most prominent and skilled hitman on the planet and he likes getting paid to kill the worse guys, but he also has a daughter and would do anything for her. This makes him vulnerable to the needs of Waller, ensuring his cooperation under the promises for his daughter's bright future. Next, there is Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the Joker's (Jared Leto) leading lady, and a real force to be reckoned with. The extended flashback sequence that gives us Quinn's origin story and involves a date night with Joker as well as a chase scene through the streets of Gotham featuring Ben Affleck's Batman is a real high point as it felt like I was watching the live-action version of the nineties animated series I grew up on and always longed for. There is even a shot that pays homage to the great Alex Ross art piece that made me grin from ear to ear. We then are delivered a few more backstories via Waller with less and less emphasis on the characters themselves as our history lessons on both Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) are a little undercooked with Captain Boomerang's (Jai Courtney) essentially being non-existent despite the character being one of the more permanent fixtures of the team in the comic series.
The film rips and roars through exposition as it continues to introduce the likes of Jay Hernandez's Diablo, Karen Fukuhara's Katana, and Adam Beach's Slipknot not to mention Scott Eastwood as a Lieutenant under Flagg whose presence is completely unnecessary. The pacing is relentless in a way that makes all of this set-up fun and engaging and it's only propelled that much further by the consistent, pounding soundtrack that has raided the Warner Brothers Records vaults. What this all comes down to is saying that, in the first hour, the film really feels like a highlight reel of a movie. It moves so quickly and so frenetically that it's easy to see how it could be perceived as careless. The film has no qualms with not making us care about the plights of these characters outside the principals of Waller, Deadshot, and Harley Quinn. This wouldn't normally be an issue for a film-focusing on two or three primary leads with the rest of the characters filling in supporting roles, but in “Suicide Squad” both Flagg and Enchantress are enlisted to play key roles in the development of the plot as well as with one another and this aspect of the film is underwhelming and underdeveloped in ways that really make a difference. And while poor Delevingne gets a few cool visual moments as Enchantress early on she more or less gets stuck doing dance moves on a pedestal for the majority of the film undercutting both the severity of the threat against the Squad and the climactic battle that is supposed to be, well...climactic. Elsewhere, the film does feature a lot of strong character work from those it chooses to focus more heavily on and even a few of the characters that are more ideas than fully fleshed out humans get a chance to show their worth thanks to the performances from a game cast (here's looking at you, Jai Courtney) that is clearly having a blast.
As Deadshot, Smith is on-he is firing on all cylinders making it feel as if we've stepped into some kind of time machine and wound up back in 1997 when the actor was still realizing his full potential in something like “Bad Boys.” As good and as charismatic as Smith is here (all of his jokes land and a running bit about Phil Jackson is pure gold) though, this is Robbie's show and she is selling it for all it's worth. Wholly becoming the character that spawned from that aforementioned animated series Robbie has the voice down pat and the mannerisms even more so. She is somehow able to line what is otherwise a completely psychotic character with a hint of humanity when it comes to the moments that require some authentic emotional weight. Much has been made about Leto's method acting for the role of Joker, but given his limited screen time it is Robbie's Quinn you won't be able to take your eyes off of. Every time she is on screen one can't help but to wonder what she'll do next. There is a great shot of Harley Quinn, Deadshot, and a few of the others being transferred out of prison to report for duty where it becomes all the more clear how immersed Robbie was in the role and it just works-it's totally convincing and you can't help but want more.
All of that said, what is the verdict on this version of Joker then? Truth be told-there isn't really enough to go on to make a final decision. The idea is there, the concept is interesting, and Leto certainly has the chops to pull it off, but until we (hopefully) see both Leto and Robbie return in Affleck's solo ‘Batman’ film we won't know for sure. That being said, what we do get to see here of the Clown Prince himself doesn't necessarily feel earned. There are little quips and motions that make us feel as if Leto is completely embodying the character and his wardrobe and the color scheme he surrounds himself with is pretty magnificent, but when it comes to creating moments with this character-actual living, breathing instances where the character interacts with others and exchanges dialogue-they come off slightly fraudulent in a way-as if Leto knows who his version of Joker is to a certain extent, but hasn't earned that title. Joker doesn't get that "moment" that he so badly needs and deserves. The jury is still out on Leto's Joker until we're able to see the actor flesh him out further, but there is certainly promise as the complete maniac in the personality is still intact combined with the more "gangster" approach of his attitude that makes for an even more unpredictable villain than he's been portrayed as in the past. There is a dangerous edge to the interpretation and I dig it, but I want to see more to know if what I'm getting goes deeper than the tattoos that cover his body. In this case one has to wonder why Ayer wouldn't have positioned Joker as the main baddie as he would have more than enough justification to go after Waller for hijacking his girlfriend and implanting a bomb in her neck, but rather than make this the simple throughline of the story Ayer and his film overall tend to over-complicate things for itself leaving us with a pair of mostly CGI adversaries (despite a clear unyielding vision to make Killer Croc a practical creation on a real actor) that carry little weight in connection to our "heroes" and couldn't be less interesting or more stock than what this version of the movie eventually makes of them.
With the unrelenting drive of the first hour of the film that hardly gives us a moment to come up for air it is in the second half of the film that things really begin to take a turn and the reasons for those unforgiving reviews begin to make themselves clear. There is a particular moment in the movie where one can feel it shift. It begins by undoing all Davis has done to make Waller as duplicitous a character as she should be. This turn gives the character an inconsistency that is never able to be undone no matter how much guile Davis is able to bring to the table. From this moment on it becomes clear there actually isn't more to the story than we thought there was and that, what in fact is happening, and what the “Suicide Squad” have been brought in for is more a product of the powers that be than something that would validate putting together a team of anti-heroes. It is here that the messy narrative and editing issues become all the more evident. There are moments that feel tacked on and/or were originally at different points in the film, but have been re-cut and spliced into a scene where the studio hoped it would still make sense as they didn't want to lose the footage completely, but didn't want to waste a whole scene on it. It's hard not to sense a trend of there being vastly superior extended cuts of these DC movies to come on Blu-Ray as it's beyond obvious in the second half of “Suicide Squad” that some executive clearly went to town on this thing at the eleventh hour. There needed to be a moment, an action beat (which the film has plenty of) that showed these disparate characters coming together in a more cohesive manner that ultimately justifies the sense of "family" they seem to feel in the third act. There is a scene that could be argued does this, but it comes so late in the film it more serves to flesh out Diablo for the needs of his powers in the final climactic battle rather than to unite these supposed bad guys. And then there is a scene where it seems the film realized it needed that bonding scene and so, in the third act, brings everything to a screeching halt in order to carry out a set of exchanges at a bar in an attempt to make us feel sympathy for these murderers, thieves, and psychos. In the end, it's too little too late and while there's a sense the characters are in on the ridiculousness of where this thing goes it all feels unwarranted. Combined with a badly choreographed and rather ugly final fight sequence the second half of the film is a true wash. A true missed opportunity.
That first hour counts for a lot in my books, though. It begins with such a strong sense of itself that one can't help but to want to embrace and enjoy it for all its Ayer-tinged griminess and gallows humor. That Ayer tries to do so much both in terms of plot and characters ultimately takes away from all of the aspects that would have clearly shined more were some of the characters and therefore some of the plot strands stripped away. Allowing for more time to be allotted those who have earned our interest and those we'd like to see more of, but can't because it is for some reason necessary to have Slipknot in this movie. I liked that Ike Barinholtz was cast here. I enjoyed the overall visual aesthetic Ayer went for. I wanted more Captain Boomerang and less of the useless peripheral characters that for some reason are over utilized. I would have liked to see more of Killer Croc doing the heavy lifting rather than the team of soldiers Flagg brings with him who have even less of a connection to the audience than the underserved Croc. I would have liked more consistency in Waller's character as Davis' portrayal is pure fire, and I needed more of a connection to the Flagg/Enchantress dynamic if it was going to function as it does. All of these are things I would have liked to have seen. Changes I would have made. None of this is enough to completely ruin the fun that is to be had with “Suicide Squad” though. And it is a fun movie-there is a lot of good stuff to take away from it and plenty to get audiences excited for where the DC universe may go from here. It's not groundbreaking filmmaking, it's nothing that will break the mold of the genre, but it's decent enough and sometimes that's fine. Maybe we should stop expecting more from movies that are inherently silly and let them be just that.