Friday, August 5, 2016

SUICIDE SQUAD - My Immediate Reactions Coalescing Into an Actual Spoiler-Free Review

When I talk about films and television, I often point out that “it’s all about the characters, stupid.” And if there’s a place where SUICIDE SQUAD truly shines, it’s with the characters. The film has to introduce a myriad of villains — who are actually going to be the heroes we’ll be rooting for in the forthcoming mission. Now, obviously there's been a number of movies in that vein over the past 50 years, from THE DIRTY DOZEN all the way to OCEAN'S ELEVEN — but it’s still just a twee bit different here, plus throwing in one big “known to the masses in previous incarnations” monkey wrench like the Joker makes it that much harder a feat to accomplish.

And on that basis, the movie mostly succeeds. Will Smith may not be the Deadshot comic enthusiasts envisioned or even wanted. Guess what? He pulls off a richly nuanced performance in the film, never losing sight of being “a bad guy” while still being human. Frankly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this take on Floyd Lawton — it's most I’ve liked the not-so-Fresh Prince in quite some time.

Viola Davis really nails the part of Amanda Waller, a.k.a. the bizarro version of Nick Fury. I knew she was the "doesn’t take shit from no one" type from the ads — but trust me, there's a point in the film when she's clearly worse than any of her forced recruits.

Jai Courtney’s an actor I’m only familiar with by reputation. As I understand it, his reputation sucks. So I was delighted by how much fun and vitality he brings to his moments on screen as Captain Boomerang. Jay Hernandez’s Diablo is incredibly strong and probably the most sympathetic Squad member, and A-A-A’s Killer Croc deserves far more screen time to really sink his teeth into such a monstrously tasty role. 

And then there’s Harley Quinn and the Joker. 

Let me clarify a few things right now: 

(1) My main exposure to Harley Quinn comes from her appearances on the Batman animated series. I have a faint memory of her subsequent comic book appearances, but my HQ background is more cartoon-based (the inkwell from which she sprung).

(2) Although I was taken aback when I saw the first stills of Jared Leto as the Joker — due to all those tattoos and the dental grillwork — I was also accepting of it after that initial shock. Yes, his look was WAY different than Ledger’s in THE DARK KNIGHT — but I hastened to point out just how very different Ledger was from Nicholson in BATMAN. As long as David Ayer (the writer & director) and Leto kept the mischievously murderous spirit of the Joker intact, I was eager to see what they would pull off.

First, there’s Harley. Margot Robbie really dives in and goes for it with this role. Fans upset by her non-jester look *micro spoiler* there’s a little bone thrown to you. Is HQ hyper-sexualized? Maybe. Is she more a prop or an object? No. She knows exactly what she’s doing — even if in many ways, she’s the most broken character in the entire film. There’s a certain amount of tragedy with a few Squad members in the film, but that’s more tied to how they came to be incarcerated. Harley’s tragedy is her origin and the ongoing dangerous obsessive love for the Joker. 

I can’t say how Harley Quinn fans will react. Quite frankly, it will depend on what version they're more familiar with, as I've heard that later HQ stories were more empowering and less devoted to her abusive relationship to Mistah J. But the backstory I saw in SUICIDE SQUAD was mostly in line with my HQ knowledge.

Shifting from Harley Quinn to the Homicidal Harlequin of Horror — Leto’s Joker is undeniably spellbinding. I can’t help but wonder how electrifying he would be as the main antagonist in a later Batman film. Also, I think most movie audiences are so accustomed to seeing the Joker take over any flick he’s in (as Ledger and Nicholson did), that it's mildly jarring to see such a villain confined to a smaller supporting role in SS, even if it’s a memorable one. So it's unfair to compare Leto to either Ledger or Nicholson, as they both had far more screen time for their turns as the Joker.

For the most part, all the characters sizzle and crackle like frying bacon. And the set-up — the formation of Task Force X (the Suicide Squad) is handled with considerable flair and panache, from the villain introductions all the way to the eventual suiting up for action. 


Where SUICIDE SQUAD fumbles is with the actual plot — the menace that brings these bad guys together to do a good thing. There’s nothing remotely interesting about the threat, and some aspects feel like visual carbon paper of the third act of every other superhero movie good and bad over the past ten years. Trust me, you’ll be all “Hey, that reminds me of THE AVENGERS…and MAN OF STEEL…and FANTASTIC FOUR…and—“ That’s the point when you realize you’ve seen this same dopey third act end-of-the-world cosmic light show over and over again.

Sadly, superhero films, action films, horror films...they’re often only as good as the villain. Bond movies with great villains are eternal. Bond movies with less than memorable villains? By definition, they’re forgettable. That rule applies whether the hero is Harry Potter or Harry Callahan — there’s just no getting around that. 

SUICIDE SQUAD buys itself an additional thimble-full of credit because the protagonists are villains. But as underscored in this film, there's a big difference between bad guys and villains, and that credit is quickly converted to a demerit. Why? Because it should've been clear to David Ayer that the actual villain HAS TO BE HORRIFYING EVIL AND JAW-DROPPINGLY CRAP-YOUR-PANTS WE'RE SCREWED SCARY. 

Someone or something memorable, with clear motivations and intent, that should induce as much post-movie conversation as any cool scene or funny line or favorite protagonist.

Here, eh. Not so much.

And that’s a HUGE problem — I can’t help but dream about how incredible this movie COULD have been if the antagonist sparked our interest, wonder and imagination the way most of the crew of colorful convicts do. 

Something original, something clever...
Something different.

Now, I can overlook some of the smaller flaws in the film, such as:

(1) The overuse of pop music in the first half is a misguided attempt to differentiate SS from either MAN OF STEEL or BATMAN v SUPERMAN. Except — that’s pretty evident from the get-go, so stacking all these tracks one right after the other is complete overkill (and in the case of an admittedly great but overplayed White Stripes song, kinda steps on the humorous impact of one scene). Just because I might have all these songs in my iTunes, doesn't mean I need to hear them all during my moviegoing experience...

(2) Maybe there are just a few too many characters running around in SS. As a result, while some have plenty of room to develop and impact the audience, others feel as if they were tossed in to fill out a cast promo shot (like Katana and Slipknot, not to mention any and all the army personnel under Rick Flag’s command, including Scott Eastwood). Personally, I wouldn’t have minded more time with the likes of Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc.

(3) Some clunky dialogue is TOO on-the-nose; a few jokes land with a solid THUD. Even gags that were amusing in the trailer -- for whatever reason don’t quite work in the context or pacing of the film. There’s also at least one scene in the trailer that didn’t make the final cut.

If only SUICIDE SQUAD had been handled the right way...this should have been DC’s answer to GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Instead, while it’s certainly far more enjoyable than BATMAN V SUPERMAN, I’m still left waiting to see a DCEU film that doesn’t require hedging and explaining and the usual comic book fan apologist routines that were on display after both MAN OF STEEL (which I actually liked despite some flaws) and BATMAN V SUPERMAN (the Ultimate Edition was an improvement). 

You're up next, WONDER WOMAN.

Those were my “immediate reaction” thoughts to SUICIDE SQUAD. While I’m gratified that a film of this nature does a good job with a number of characters, I wish they were given a more genuinely compelling mission --- because THAT would make for a genuinely compelling MOVIE. 

Overall, I'd still recommend SUICIDE SQUAD on the strength of many of the performances, a refreshingly spry tongue-in-cheek tone, and a surprising amount of heart for a fairly dark subject matter. I would also urge fans of the genre to ignore the ridiculously excessive negative critical feedback the film has piled up. It's a B, B minus...not an F, unless the F is for Fuck the Critics, that is. 

Wait, did David Ayer take over my blog...?

PS: There IS a mid-credits scene... don't be in such a hurry to leave the theater!