Suicide Squad (United States, 2016)

August 03, 2016
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Suicide Squad Poster

It has apparently become an old-fashioned notion to believe motion pictures should be grounded in concepts like narrative and character rather than in how loudly the soundtrack plays classic rock songs and how many cuts the director can use in an overlong action scene. It has apparently become passé to crave moments of inspiration and triumph in a superhero film instead of a relentless, grating sense of darkness. And it has apparently become irrelevant whether these overbudgeted tentpoles have at their heart a sense of humanity rather than a cynical reliance on visual razzle-dazzle. Suicide Squad may not be the worst offender but, because of all the hype and anticipation surrounding its release, it may be the most disappointing. This movie feels all-too-much like Batman v. Superman while unspooling with the inelegance of X-Men: Apocalypse. (Forget the Dirty Dozen allusions being made by the filmmakers - any similarities are fleeting and superficial.) It gets props for kinetic energy, bursts of suspense, and a couple of bravura performances (Will Smith & Margot Robbie). But pretty much everything else is either mediocre or substandard and that makes it hard to champion this bloated and cheerless monstrosity.

The premise sounds fun…take some of the biggest, baddest villains in the D.C. Comics universe and, by using a convenient contrivance, assemble them on a team whose sole purpose is to save the world from superpowered creatures that normal armed forces can’t defeat. The concept is considerably better than the execution, although the core problem may be that writer/director David Ayer’s screenplay is a mishmash of overcooked action sequences and incoherent plot development. By the movie’s end, we’re left with a sense that supervillains aren’t actually evil, they’re just misunderstood. This kind of inversion isn’t new (not that long ago, Maleficent did it for a younger audience) but Ayer’s handling of it is uncertain at best.

The Greater Villain (who is opposed by the Lesser Villains comprising the Suicide Squad) is a god-figure, like Apocalypse in the latest X-Men movie. This is what I wrote in my review of that movie: “It’s almost impossible to pit any group against a godlike entity and not have the resolution feel like a contrived cheat.” If that was true in X-Men: Apocalypse, it’s even truer of Suicide Squad and the climax is as head-shakingly dumb as one can imagine. To an extent, it’s possible to accept (if not entirely excuse) a bad ending if the journey to that point is enjoyable. Suicide Squad has its moments, to be sure, and, although its brand of high-energy action becomes numbing after a while, it’s never boring. By the conclusion of its 130 minutes of screen time, I felt a little shell-shocked. (The too-loud soundtrack, which may have been the theater’s fault, and the aggravating 3-D, which certainly wasn’t, didn’t help.)

Suicide Squad has been posited as the natural progression of “offbeat” comic book-inspired movies whose recent trajectory has followed Guardians of the Galaxy to Deadpool. But there’s little about Suicide Squad that feels substantially different from the other two recent D.C. universe films, Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. In fact, David Ayer appears to be aping Zack Snyder’s approach. Although one could argue this is appropriate for a story about a bunch of killers, cutthroats, thieves, and lunatics, Suicide Squad never achieves its own identity. Cameos by Batman (the Ben Affleck incarnation) and The Flash don’t help.

The Suicide Squad is a group of misanthropes and sociopaths brought together by tough-as-nails black ops government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and her second-in-command, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). Their “recruits” include the hitman who never misses, Deadshot (Will Smith); the psycho girlfriend of The Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie); the scummy, boomerang-wielding Digger Harkness (Jai Courtney); the human torch-inspired El Diablo (Jay Hernandez);  the incredibly powerful force of nature with a bad skin condition, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje); and the swordswoman Katana (Karen Fukuhara). Their target is the evil entity The Enchantress who has possessed the body of scientist Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevigne) and harbors delusions of divinity. Oh, and she’s planning to use an airborne special effect to destroy humanity. Wandering around in the background are two of the D.C. universe’s most famous characters: The Joker (Jared Leto), who pops up from time-to-time to save his girlfriend, and Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck), whose longest appearance is during the mid-credits sequence.

When discussing the high points of Suicide Squad, one doesn’t have to look beyond the arresting performances of Will Smith, who hasn’t been this buff since Ali, and Margot Robbie, whose work here and in The Legend of Tarzan has elevated her to Hollywood’s A-list. Not coincidentally, Deadshot and Harley Quinn are the only two members of the squad with somewhat fleshed-out backstories and balanced characters. Smith infuses dramatic elements into Deadshot’s wisecracking persona and Robbie is both disturbingly sexy and frighteningly unhinged as The Joker’s Lover. Speaking of The Joker, while Jared Leto is creepy as the iconic villain, he’s mostly in the background and leaves no lasting impression. Put him at the back of The Joker line behind Heath Ledger, Cesar Romero, and Jack Nicholson. Maybe if he had more than 10-15 minutes of screen time…

Perhaps the biggest shock of Suicide Squad isn’t how comic book generic the overall plot is or how bland most of the characters are but that the project was written and directed by David Ayer. That’s the same David Ayer who wrote Training Day and scripted/directed the tense End of Watch. It hardly seems possible that the talent behind those movies has resorted to mimicking Zack Snyder and creating something that falls short.

Suicide Squad is a comic book movie made primarily for fanboys and fangirls. Those with previous knowledge of the characters and the universe that spawned them may have a fun time seeing them on screen and dissecting the differences between their cinematic incarnations and their pencil-and-ink originals. Mainstream movie-goers, however, are likely to find this just another superhero movie with the only difference being that the protagonists aren’t squeaky clean. It’s loud, busy, and exhausting (but not in a good way). Cue the Shakespeare quote often used for summer blockbusters: “It is a tale…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Suicide Squad (United States, 2016)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2016-08-05
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Action/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1