First: 2015’s abominable Fantastic Four. Now: Suicide Squad, the latest in a slew of big-budget train wrecks, resulting in an acrid cocktail of the wrong directors being given too much agency coupled with boneheaded, contradictory studio hand-holding. Still, it’s hard to strictly call studio interference party foul here, as the film is so inherently muddy it’s hard to imagine any iteration successfully coughing itself to life. It’s hard to resist a spectral Queen chorus of “Is this the real life?” running through your head watching the shambolic mess unspool – Suicide Squad wants desperately to strut, but stumbles on every step, before toppling into the void of being utterly forgettable.
We can excuse the embarrassingly gratuitous Justice League tie-ins (hey – at least Ben Affleck’s Batman acts somewhat more like Batman, saving villains from certain death rather than branding them in the face). We can **sort of** excuse the flagrant piggybacking plagiarism of Guardians of the Galaxy, from the hyperactive prison montage antihero character bios to the soundtrack, nonsensically cobbled together like a caffeine-high teen with a gift card to the iTunes store (and no, you’re not mistaken – that Norman Greenbaum song is yanked straight out of the Guardians trailer. The theft is that blatant). We can even try to excuse director David Ayer’s uncomfortable balance between dopey, wannabe slick humour and self-important wannabe ‘darkness’, even if it mostly manifests in the film’s indiscernible, murky lighting (grossly counterbalanced by splotches of colour, like a toddler vomiting play-doh). Still – a film full of villains-turned-antiheroes must bring SOMETHING original to the table. Right
And this is what we can’t excuse: Suicide Squad is not only a bird’s nest of content and tone, but also a fundamentally trashy, soulless, redundantly small-minded film. It loudly parades some of the worst nonlinear editing and pacing seen in a recent Hollywood film, to the point where its gossamer-thin plot (literally a lazy, boiled down version of The Raid – the entire conflict can be reduced to ‘climb the building’) becomes almost incomprehensible at times when really nothing is happening. There’s so much daft flashiness (yes, including Ezra Miller), sense is thrown to the wind. But, lest we get confused, Ayer is sure to slop in massive exposition dumps every 10-15 minutes, which rudely bring the film to a screeching halt every time it starts to pick up steam. The tiny blips of action are so bland, they fade from consciousness and memory before they’ve even finished feebly sputtering on. Finally, the glut of action figures-sorry-characters is so unreasonably vast, several Squad members are given no introduction, and literally dispatched within minutes with no send-off. Several are so extraneous they could be trimmed without anyone even noticing (Katana, anyone?). Initially, there’s hope for the effectively creepy uber-villains, but, after memorable introductions, they spend the majority of the film sulking in puffs of CGI, waiting for Ayer to remember they exist. Even worse: even some of the most iconic secondary players – Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s iconic Killer Croc, for one – are so underused, they’re effectively there to snarl on command, and burp out unfunny “B.E.T.” punchlines. Ouch.
It’s even more of a shame, as Ayer does scatter nuggets of genuinely compelling material to grapple with. Peel aware its slathering of smarm and gloom, and Suicide Squad is a film about characters struggling with bad relationships. Smith’s Deadshot regrets his daughter being overly permissive of his career as an assassin. Jay Hernandez’s Diablo spends the rest of his life owning up to his superpowered tantrum gruesomely murdering his girlfriend and children (the sole flashback which actually works, infusing the film with tragedy, scope, and as sombre a cinematic allegory for domestic abuse as we’ve seen lately, and Hernandez is unexpectedly moving). And let’s not even start on whatever warped, emotionally abusive relationship the Joker and Harley Quinn share. These interludes may not propel the story, but when Ayer allows himself to linger in the darkness, he digs up the film’s only real illumination.
The film may have been transparently retrofitted to accommodate Will Smith, but he’s worth it. Arguably the film’s greatest asset, Smith warps his boundless, sassy charisma and badassery into the film’s uneasy moral compass, supplying (the film’s only) surprisingly compelling emotional arc. Margot Robbie, conversely, hits her marks with an unshakable sense of her performing Harley Quinn rather than getting under her skin. She’s oodles of fun, but her crazy is as wobbly and vaguely forced as her accent. Thankfully, Viola Davis is steely perfection as the Machiavellian Amanda Waller, and Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang is funnier and more unpredictable than he has any right to be as such a boorish bogan stereotype. Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flagg is one of the most infuriating military grunts in recent cinematic memory (and this is a generation that survived Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Godzilla
). And then there’s Jared Leto. Hoo boy. If ‘forced’ was already a shroud ensconcing the film, his blingy Joker is its bleating fog machine of artifice. He’s loud and irritating, but embarrassingly far-removed from appropriate levels of sinister or unhinged, no matter how many rings of knives he lies in or pools of toxic waste he dives into.
There’s a bit near the end of Suicide Squad where Kinnaman’s Flagg, suffering a change of heart, offers the Squad the chance to escape, and live their lives. Cliché dictates they will instead seek redemption, and stay to fight (yawn). Instead, Courtney’s Boomerang prances up, and, without a word, jackrabbits out of the room. It’s the film’s biggest laugh, partially for its unexpectedness, but partially for being the single most sensible move in the entire production. Suicide Squad is a sinking ship, and the fact that all involved didn’t follow Boomerang’s example (and even he idiotically crawls back – boo), makes the title exquisitely apt.
3 out of 5 stars