It’s not easy to overlook the many flaws of the new DC comic book adaptation Suicide Squad (and trust me, I won’t), but I have to admit that I did enjoy it more than I expected. The sole reason for that unexpected enjoyment is the cast. The producers of Suicide Squad put together a collection of actors who are not only charismatic individually, but whose chemistry as a team is about the only thing that makes the movie watchable at all. Without Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jai Courtney, and the rest, Suicide Squad would be an unredeemable mess of a movie. Grotesquely nihilistic, with a script that can most charitably be described as cobbled together, a possible subtitle for the film could have been The Plot that Wasn’t There.
Following the death of Superman at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, high-ranking intelligence official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) conceives of a plan to force “the worst of the worst” into completing missions too dangerous or difficult for ordinary soldiers. This titular squad is a collection of those supposedly worst criminals ever captured. There’s Deadshot (Will Smith), an elite hitman whose only weakness is the daughter he cares about more than his own freedom; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the one-time psychiatrist to the Joker who became his closest and most deranged follower; El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), an ex-gang banger with pyrokinetic powers; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a master thief; and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a member of Batman’s rogues gallery who looks like a giant reptile because of a rare genetic disorder.
In a plot device reminiscent of the John Carpenter classic Escape from New York, each criminal is injected in the neck with an explosive device that can be remotely detonated if they are noncompliant. If they die, who cares? They are, after all, unrepentant criminals. That’s the nihilism I alluded to earlier. Because not all of these super villains are actually unrepentant. The exception is El Diablo, who has had a genuine change of conscience and vowed to never use his powers again. Waller doesn’t give a damn, though. Her succeed-at-any-and-all-costs attitude makes her the antihero to end all antiheroes.
Again, the casting is key to making Waller even remotely acceptable as someone with whom the audience can identify. Viola Davis’ considerable acting skills transform Waller into a character who can almost overcome her most detestable faults, at least making the audience believe she thinks she’s doing what’s best. Then the script sabotages Davis’ hard work by having her murder her own loyal employees simply because they knew too much. That screenplay, written by the film’s director, David Ayer, will undoubtedly someday go on a list of the flimsiest premises ever to hold up a major summer Hollywood blockbuster.
All of the movie’s action is a result of a mistake Waller makes while recruiting her task force. One potential member is Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne), an archeologist who unleashes The Enchantress, an ancient evil sorceress. The Enchantress possesses Moone, and Waller devises a plan to control the evil spirit so she can fight as an unwilling member of the Squad. The Enchantress outwits Waller, and the spirit decides to destroy all of humanity for no longer worshiping her as they did in ancient times. So, instead of this elite fighting unit saving humanity from existential threats unleashed at the hands of nefarious villains, they must clean up the mess of their own commander. This would be fine, except nothing is ever really explained with any satisfaction.
The weaknesses of the script are made even more abundantly clear late in the film when one central character is shown not only dying, but almost certainly dead. As far as my understanding of montage editing, we see what must be the corpse. A few minutes later that character rounds a corner, as if after a game of hide-and-seek, alive and well and as if nothing happened. There is tricking your audience into believing a character has died, then there is just sloppy storytelling. This is the latter.
Helping Ayer’s sloppy script is John Gilroy’s sloppy editing. There are stories circulating about Warner Bros. interfering with the structure of Suicide Squad, so it may not be entirely fair to fault just Gilroy. New facts have come to light about the studio hiring the company that cut the trailers for the film to re-edit it. According to an article on Slate, what ended up on the screen was a mishmash of both cuts. When a flashback shows you something that you just saw twenty minutes ago, and it doesn’t impart any meaningful new information to the audience, that is a sign of the filmmakers getting lost in the process.
The aesthetic of the entire movie lends credence to the idea that Ayer and Co. had no clear vision, so they resorted to an assault on the senses as a way to distract from its weaknesses. The opening act is an interminable sequence where we are introduced to each member of the squad, complete with their own title cards and flashbacks. The opening half hour alone features enough pop songs to fill three Martin Scorsese pictures, and the ultra-quick cutting makes MTV look like a Merchant-Ivory production by comparison. Suicide Squad is a movie in desperate need of a Ritalin prescription, and an identity.
This all boils down to me giving thanks to the movie gods for Will Smith. And Margot Robbie. And Jai Courtney. Their performances, along with the rest of the squad, hooked me into this movie despite the lack of coherence everywhere else. Will Smith could make Charles Manson seem like the new hotness. Margot Robbie is magnetic. I never knew what she’d do next, which forced me to keep my eyes locked on her every second she was on screen. There’s a psychotic, gleeful abandon to her performance that’s strangely satisfying. Jai Courtney revels in his own Aussie-ness. It’s not nearly enough to salvage Suicide Squad from being the failure that it is, but those performances kept me sane during the experience. And for that, I’m grateful.
Why it got 2 stars:
- It's not as much of a joyless slog as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but it's pretty damn close. If it hadn't been for the performances, Suicide Squad would have been an irritating waste of time .
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- It is absolutely insane that this movie is rated PG-13. The almost non-stop carnage and gunplay easily makes it a hard R. The MPAA is a joke. Their double standard regarding not only how they rate major Hollywood movies vs. smaller independent films but also how they treat sex on screen vs. violence is laughable. If you haven't seen This Film Is Not Yet Rated, check it out.
- The world in Suicide Squad kind of feels like Trump's America.® It's dangerous, dysfunctional, and the threat of violence looms around every corner. If the Cheeto-American is elected, I'm sure it will only be a matter of time before our law enforcement needs are met by threatening prisoners with death unless they agree to battle our enemies. Basically, kiss the rule of law goodbye.
- You might be wondering why Jared Leto appears nowhere in the review. Honestly, I just didn't have the heart. The tattoos are ridiculous, his performance is something like a lunatic's idea of what a gansta rapper must be like in real life, and he's barely in it. Leto faced the impossible task of re-imagining an already iconic figure after what might be the defining characterization of the Joker in Heath Ledger's performance. Really, I just kind of felt sorry for the guy.