Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Seriously, why won't you play Freebird?


Written and directed by James Gunn

Spoiler alert: moderate

When I was a child, I was confused by the phrase, "they want to have their cake and eat it, too."  I can have cake.  I can eat it.  But if it had been formulated "they want to still have their cake and eat it, too," then I would've immediately understood it.  For its part, The Suicide Squad wants to still have its cake, eat it, jerk off on the cake, and smear the cake all over the wall, too.  So, you know.  It's a James Gunn superhero movie.

The good news is that it easily hops over the low bar set by its predecessor, David Ayer's 2016 Suicide Squad, if by nothing else simply by realizing that its fundamental premise of throwing the DC universe's least-valuable intellectual properties into a meatgrinder is probably best approached (at least as a film adaptation) as a comedy.  The even better news is that the worst thing about it is still its title, confirming the single ugliest sequel title convention in the history of cinema as an actual thing that's happening.  (Coming soon: The Batman.)  Personally, I'd have liked it if Warners had dusted off their old Gold Diggers/Broadway Melody convention with The Suicide Squad of 2021, for wouldn't that suit this particular superhero franchise?  Maybe it isn't "an anthology series" by strict definition, but given the casualty rates inherent to making them at all interesting, and the untold hundreds of B-to-Z-list DC supervillains that each Suicide Squad can throw onto the screen just to watch them die, an "anthology series" is more-or-less what we're bound to get.  (Or no series at all, given the alarmingly soft box office for this one.)  Anyway, the other other good news is that the second worst thing about (sigh) The Suicide Squad isn't even to do with the movie proper, but the marketing campaign that promises it's from the "horribly beautiful mind of James Gunn," which is so self-regarding, even if he didn't come up with it, that it makes me want to eat some jizzed-up floor cake and vomit it into Gunn's hair.

If I sat down and compiled the list, I'd probably have a third worst thing through an nth worst thing, too, but I liked The Suicide Squad, so I'll at least briefly focus on the positive, and the best thing about it has to be its opening sequence.  (Which, in a 132 minute film, is arguably in itself a bad thing, but so it goes.)  Well, we begin with Savant (Gunn's frequent muse, Michael Rooker), whom I guess likes Johnny Cash, or somebody likes Johnny Cash, since The Suicide Squad is no less prone than the 2016 Suicide Squad to fill out its soundtrack with an expansive list of pricey songs that merge together into more-or-less pleasant white noise attending slow-motion walking montages no later than, really, this very opening sequence.  I couldn't name another of Gunn's soundtrack choices in the whole film, anyway, despite having seen it only several hours ago, which means the major way that Gunn's approach to needle-drops here beats Ayer's is that it was organic to his filmmaking process and not as likely to have been foisted upon him with a dictate to "do it more like James Gunn would" during reshoots.  Well, Savant is the latest in a line of convict supervillains to be recruited with the promise of a reduced sentence into Amanda Waller's (Viola Davis's) Task Force X, a so-called "Suicide Squad" led by Col. Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman, returning from the first film with 500% more personality, albeit starting from a low baseline), though The Suicide Squad scores a sly joke when Flagg demurs, sticking up for his slave troopers by noting "we consider that term degrading."  Forthwith, Savant, Flagg, fellow Suicide Squad alumni Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and numerous other wacky supervillains with sub-par power sets are sent to a fake Latin American country on a dangerous mission, and you'll notice that I haven't seen fit to list most of these guys as if they were major forces in the plot.

This does a whole lot of things all at once to let you know what Gunn's movie's going to be about.  For starters, it takes Ayer's movie out and has it shot, not entirely without affectionif nothing else, I think Gunn appreciates that Ayer's movie sets up the joke, and the glee with which Gunn treats the unloved trash of ongoing continuity as nothing but images to be fancifully destroyed is the most "Dark Age of Comics" thing about either of these two films, which so desperately want to capture the flamboyant nihilism of the Superhero Decadence days.  For another thing, it lets Gunn play with the stupidity, and inapplicability, of superpowers that aren't really superpowers, like a Venture Bros. throwaway gag flogged through gory live-action.  And that's the third thing, it confirms that Suicide Squad will be the first R-rated superhero film to actually earn its R-rating through something besides slightly-more-casual swearing.  Though it has swearing, if you enjoy that.

Nearby, the real mission begins with Bloodsport (Idris Elba)even less voluntarily than usual in his case, as Waller has threatened his daughter (Storm Reid) to secure his skills as a God-tier marksman, all of which sounds very familiarleading another team, comprised of Peacemaker (John Cena), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), King Shark (Sylvester Stallone at maximum mushmouth, which is very amusing, though the blindingly-apparent Grootiness of this interpretation of the character might not be), and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), whom I have arrayed in order of how much I thought they contributed to the film.  Their task is to infiltrate the country's capital and clean up an American mistake, a super-science base containing "Project Starfish," which Gunn doesn't even pretend you might not already know means Starro the Conqueror, poster child for Silver Age comic bookiness.  They need to destroy Starro before it can be used by the country's new government to wreak havoc on America or on the world, which clearly seem to be two different concepts in Waller's mind.

The good: Suicide Squad is funny, very funny, probably the highest hit-to-miss ratio of any comedy-first superhero film of the modern era (certainly more than either Deadpool, though the open desperation to be funny is that franchise's biggest strength; but possibly more than either Guardians of the Galaxy, too, and while there are occasional duds, there's never anything ruinous like Vol. 2's assertion that the phrase "Taserface" was high hilarity).  It finds more successful comedy in its violence, probably, than any movie at its budgetary level ever has.  At its best, it's genuinely anarchic, in love with the idea of idiot supervillains given free rein and running on full-tilt cartoon logictruly, the people of "Corto Maltese" must all have a curious medical condition that makes them deaf to the sound of firearms going off literally right next to them.  It scrapes up against actual monstrousness, and it's nervier than anything you'll see this year, embracing not mere amorality, but cheerful, cathartic immorality, with the only excuse Gunn could offer you being "it's not real" along with a suggestion to relax.  At its best, it's greatmaybe not staged and edited as fluidly as an anointed big-ticket auteur ought to be able to manage (though it can be, that opening really rocks)but an ecstatic wallow in morbid, edgelording slapstick, most hypnotically when Bloodsport and Peacemaker start competitively murdering people basically just to see whose dick's bigger.  (Canonically, it might well be Peacemaker's, as we get a fairly good sense of it during another gag.)  Elba's hammy knuckle-biting resentment that Cena has smugly outmatched him for sociopathy on the basis of style points is the best single moment of the whole film, delivered in what comes as close as possible to a fourth wall-breaking aside to the audience without actually going there.  The button on this long, abjectly irresponsible scene is actually shocking, and more shocking still in how little it's ever allowed to matter.  And I adore it.

The downside is that these represent the only major sequences where it feels that Gunn is making exactly the movie he set out to.  (There remain minor bits all over, of course; my favorite is a more understated one, which again finds Elba and Cena  together, this time with their cool supervillain helmets but dressed otherwise in, like, polo shirts and shorts, which given the "really solid cosplay" level of costume design that defines this film as a comedy as much as the screenplayand in Peacemaker's case, "really solid cosplay" is too complimentaryrenders this something close to a perfect visual parody of the genre.)  This is also where that length bites The Suicide Squad in the ass: I don't know exactly when it happened, but no later than the beginning of the third act the patterns that Gunn's set up stop feeling like funny parody (certainly not "subversive" parody) and start feeling like just another set of tropes, as predictable in their own way as the bog-standard superheroics The Suicide Squad, in its best moments, obviously wants to be set apart from, though, ultimately, it can't get that far.  The film might be "about" the arbitrariness of superhuman death but, man, it's certainly no less obvious who's going to survive this movie than in an Avengers picture.  Maybe more.

Even beforehand, there's actual problems: the film's first dubious sequence feels as much like a studio-mandated reshoot as anything in 2016's Suicide Squad, though I can't imagine it was.  Shoehorned in thanks to some bizarre inability on Gunn's part to come up with something/anything to offer to the only character or actor in the film that I think might be a draw in her own right, Robbie's Harley Quinn, the outcome is a ten minute interlude that I was initially convinced must've been a fantasy that involves a beefcake Latin dictator's marriage proposal and Harley's lionization as the spirit of anti-American revolutionbecause what?and maybe it even is (it's filmed like nothing else here, with double-dolly shots and more saturated colors) but it makes no sense if it isn't real.  Meanwhile, there's the scene that is definitely a Harley Quinn Fantasy Sequence, wherein she slashes her way through a pack of guards and animated flowers fly out of their wounds while she's attended by a pair of songbirds, and of course that's a terrifically lavish visual which, like a lot of The Suicide Squad as it begins to slow down, just sits there as a notion rather than an actual idea, never elaborated upon in any especially interesting way (surely a fuck-you to Disney from Gunn, you've got to keep a sharp eye to even notice those birds), and, more oddly still, a little bit laggard to even start (it's just regular old blood for like 75% of that scene).  And it's all a pity, because this stuff is only unsatisfying in the context of Harley-as-guest-star: Robbie owns the character as she always has, and a whole film built a little more intelligently and robustly around this kind of warped, hallucinatory perception would've made for a much more interesting Fantabulous Emancipation.  The rest of The Suicide Squad is not as bold, technique-wise, anyway, and while I've noticed not-unfair complaints that it's not as colorful or as poppy as it should be, at this point in cinema history I'm just happy it's shot with normal lenses and it's lit brightly enough that you can tell Elba and Cena apart.

Where it runs aground (and just keeps grinding into the sand) is where it decides to drop its more vignettish structure and start developing plot and stakes more complex than "run around shooting, stabbing, and throwing matter-annihilating polka-dots at everyone we see," which it technically does the moment that "Bloodsport doesn't give a shit about his daughter" becomes "actually, Bloodsport does give a shit about his daughter," though the moment that it connects this to "therefore, Bloodsport gives a shit about Ratcatcher" is the moment that Gunn tries to steer The Suicide Squad toward his usual found-family territory and flounders.  This is an astoundingly insincere filmthat first Guardians is both the best thing that ever happened to Gunn and the worst, if it convinced him he was actually good at sincerity amidst glibness and Guardians wasn't a very lucky accident.  The Suicide Squad eventually decides its characters have backstories informing the measliest kind of "pathos," and in some cases this actively undermines what had made them funny.  I won't go through the whole list (I mean, if it's tedious in the film...), but consider Polka-Dot Man's deep-seated hatred of his mother, manifesting in Batesy fantasies of killing her every time he deploys his unexpectedly-lethal power.  It's not even a matter of "do I care why he hates his mother?", because obviously nobody could.  It's a matter of whether the movie benefits from an explanation, or if it only demonstrates cold feet about the idea that animates its first, better half, which is, "hey, you know supervillains are bad, right?"

It's probably worse when it's overtly political, which can be summed up, more-or-less, as "Predator for dumbshits," conjuring a Greenwaldian fever dream of American imperialism so stupid and untethered to anything real, or even anything fictional (this movie serves Amanda Waller just terribly), that I'm not even sure what to make of it, though I'm sure some critics will enjoy the tsking tone of it, despite a set-up that requires Americans to murder brown people by the hundred for laughs.  Not, mind you, because they're brown, but because this movie has a pressing need to murder somebody, and "Corto Maltese" is just where the screenplay development process wound up in pursuit (or in parody) of some 80s action movie bona fides.  "Morality" shouldn't even be a useful standard by which to judge The Suicide Squad, then, but its hard swerve into its own moralizing makes it hard to avoid.  At least the nastiness is authentic; the empathy is only ever fake.  Badly faked and not even slightly imaginative, at that: a movie that spends this much effort pretending to be disturbed by the tortures suffered by its space alien antagonist probably shouldn't end the way this one does.  And somehow that's not even my biggest problem with the finale, which is way too invested in jokes about superhero film third acts to make Starro actually menacing, let alone terrifying.  (Just having it move like a starfish would've been a start.)  It's at least not a boring finale, which, again, puts it up on numerous superhero films: the coup de grĂ¢ce even finds a justification for that whole "beautifully horrible mind" thing in an image that, credit where it's due, I'd never seen before I saw The Suicide Squad.  It's a movie I often had a blast with, so I don't know, maybe I've just gotten meaner over the course of the plague year and the substandard popcorn cinema that's been offered for, frankly, even longer than that; but it's also a movie that only gets worse the more I think about it.

Score: 7/10

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