Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Zaki's Review: Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad is the fifth superhero spectacle to hit theaters this year, and the second set within Warners' DC Comics universe. That feels like a lot even for a dyed-in-the-wool comic book buff like me. Still, arriving mere months after Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ran headlong into a wall of critical castigation and box office stagnation, it feels like this project has been tasked with accomplishing more than it was really intended for. Not only does it need to play like a blockbuster, it also needs to justify the impending, unending fusillade based on the DC library to compete with Disney's bulletproof Marvel Studios brand.

As a result, Suicide Squad is a noisy, disjointed, borderline incomprehensible mess of a movie that's pretty much a textbook example of the kind of tonal disconnect that can occur when studios enlist independent-minded directors in service of the latest blockbuster-of-the-week. And yet, I kind of loved it. It's not DC's best, but it's also far from the worst. And while it might sound incongruous given how much scorn I heaped on Batman v. Superman for many of the same failings, Suicide Squad manages to work almost despite itself, and precisely because it doesn't bear the weight of its outsized mega-franchise ambitions on its back.

Instead, the film is content to take its "Dirty Dozen with superpowers" premise and play on the fringes of the broader DC cinematic universe that it's nestled within, picking up on some threads from the conclusion of Dawn of Justice. In fact, in an indication of the many contradictory force pushing and pulling behind-the-scenes like taffy, Suicide Squad is at its strongest when we can see the stripped-down genre pic that writer-director David Ayer (whose Fury and especially Sabotage already demonstrated his comfort with big ensembles and ultra-violence) clearly wanted to make, and it only stumbles when it's forced to amp up the "blockbuster factor" and punch above its weight class.

Based on a long-running DC Comics title (with several iterations since its inception in the late '50s) centering on a team of hard-bitten super-powered criminals are recruited by the government to earn time off their sentences by going on off-the-books missions, the "suicide" part of Suicide Squad comes from the fact that they're not expected to make it back from said missions, and if they don't, no one is the wiser. (The incarnation of the book by writer John Ostrander, which lasted from the late '80s to the early '90s, remains to this day one of my favorite comic book runs of all time.)

The recruiting duties here are handled by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a more enigmatic, less pleasant version of Samuel Jackson's Nick Fury over at Marvel, and the crew she puts together includes marksman-for-hire Deadshot (Will Smith), Aussie bank robber Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), human flamethrower El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), psychotic girlfriend of the Joker (Jared Leto), with Ben Affleck also showing up a few times as Batman to remind us all which superhero keeps the light on over at Warners.

Also along for the ride are Joel Kinnaman as career soldier and team leader Rick Flag, and Cara Delevingne as his girlfriend, archeologist June Moone, who occasionally finds herself possessed by an ancient being called the Enchantress. The top drawer cast is reason number one that this ends up playing far better than it reasonably should. They manage to create a sense of camaraderie and connection with one another that far surpasses anything on the page, and gives us an investment in what's happening that belies what we're actually seeing onscreen.

Reason number two that I ended up digging the film is less about the movie itself and more the universe it occupies. One of the biggest dings against Batman v. Superman for me was that it depicted such a nightmarish hellscape vision of the DC Universe that the promise of popping back in every few months to revisit it felt about as appealing as chewing glass. What Suicide Squad gets right is to make the universe it exists in a living, breathing place with a living, breathing backstory that's already in place beyond the borders of this story, and continues existing afterwards.

The way the characters casually reference to prior events, the way Batman pops in and out of the story, it has a cumulative effect not unlike being a longtime comic book reader and picking up the latest issue of whatever book you love reading. Sure, any new reader can jump in, but the longer you've been around, the more you're rewarded. Even with the heavy hand of studio interference, the pieces of connective tissue laid out in Suicide Squad manage to feel unforced in much the same way the early Marvel Studios output did -- and in precisely the way Batman v. Superman didn't.

In what's been a familiar complaint for several years now irrespective of studio, the biggest problem with Suicide Squad is the biggest problem with the overwhelming majority of these comic book/superhero pictures: the villain. Without getting into specifics, the squad is assembled to take down a terrorist threat in the fictional Midway City (that's right, comic nerds, home of Hawkman and Hawkgirl) that turns out to be far more supernatural in nature and soon descends into the usual computer-generated cacophony and the dreaded "blue beam shooting into the sky."

But, unlike with last year's Fantastic Four (yet another "blue beam" recipient), by the time the climax rolls around (boasting some of the worse CGI I've seen in awhile) we actually have a sense of who these characters are, how they're connected to one another, and have some rooting interest in seeing them succeed. Smith and Robbie are the unquestionable standouts in the cast, displaying the same chemistry with each other that made them fun to watch in last year's Focus. Robbie has been on the rise for a few years now, but I don't see how she doesn't launch through the stratosphere after her quirky, appealing turn here.

(That said, I'm already bracing myself for all the new memes from folks wishing they could have a relationship like Joker and Harley. Folks, this is an abusive relationship between a mentally disturbed woman and a deranged psychopath. Not exactly On Golden Pond territory.)

Davis is a perfect fit for the take-no-crap Waller (previously played by Angela Bassett in 2011's execrable Green Lantern), and though I haven't been the biggest fan of Jai Courtney in the past, he seems to have found his spirit animal with Boomerang even after what feels like most of his arc got taken out by the editor. Hernandez is also a very pleasant surprise in this. And while Kinnaman is fine as Flag (his growing partnership with Smith's Deadshot is a nice through-line), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje doesn't make much of a mark under layers of makeup as the mutant Killer Croc. Faring worst of all is Cara Delevingne, who brings neither pathos nor menace to either of her dual roles.

As far as Leto's Joker goes, well, he's the Joker. Not sure what else I can say beyond that. He's not trying to redo Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger, and has a take that's its own thing, but the previous occupants of the role cast such a long shadow that I can easily see Leto's crazy-but-in-a-different-way version being summarily dismissed as a result. That would be unfair, in my opinion. Leto clearly has some longterm designs on where to take the classic villain, and unlike the other Jokers we know we'll see him again after this, so his part in this is really as a glorified nested trailer for next time.

To that point, "next time" is what these flicks inevitably end up being all about once the credits roll. In this case, with Wonder Woman and Justice League on tap next year, the DC universe looks to be chugging right along for the foreseeable future whether we want it or not. And as with any multi-franchise construct like this, it's hard for any one filmmaker to really put a stamp on these things (Marvel's dealing with the same problem). But even in the face of that, just like the motley assortment of ne'er-do-wells it depicts, David Ayer's Suicide Squad doggedly, stubbornly marches to its own beat in a way I can't help but admire. B-

For more movie talk, including our thoughts on Star Trek Beyond, check out the big 100th episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:

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