Saturday, August 6, 2016

Play "Freebird"!


Forget the hype!  Suicide Squad isn't the worst movie of the year.  No, sir: it merely sucks in all the ordinary ways.

Written and directed by David Ayer
With Will Smith (Floyd Lawton/Deadshot), Margot Robbie (Dr. Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn), Joel Kinnaman (Col. Rick Flag), Jai Courtney (Digger Harkness/Captain Boomerang), Jay Hernandez (Chato Santana/El Diablo), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Waylon Jones/Killer Croc), Karen Fukuhara (Tatsu Yamashiro/Katana), Adam Beach (Christopher Weiss/Slipknot), Viola Davis (Amanda Waller), Jared Leto (The Joker), and Cara Delavingne (Dr. June Moone/Enchantress)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Remind me: why was it we all got so excited for Suicide Squad again?

Sure, it had a fun trailer, but not that fun.  And yes, personally, I was very excited for it, because it featured the reunion of Will Smith and Margot Robbie, who wrought movie star miracles together in last year's Focus.  Then again, it's not like anybody besides me ever cared about Focus; thus the prospect of recapturing Robbie and Smith's intoxicating dynamism in a superhero context probably couldn't have been the major animating force behind anybody else's enthusiasm.  So was it just Robbie in those pants?  Perhaps it was.  I doubt it could've been the words "written and directed by David Ayer," nor the phrase "studio-mandated reshoots."

But if it was the deployment of Grace's cover of "You Don't Own Me," alongside that done-to-death movie stand-by, "Ballroom Blitz," well, my friend, you're in luck: for Suicide Squad is chock full of pop songs just like those, their selection alternating from "devastatingly on-the-nose" to "so fucking random you can't even believe it was a Warner Bros. executive who chose it, it had to have been an actual, literal machine."

And, oh yeah: now I remember why we gave a shit about this movie.  We all loved Guardians of the Galaxy.  And this was going to be the DC Extended Universe's Guardians.

Those forced reshoots guaranteed it!

The film reeks of that selfsame desperation, from its song-studded soundtrack to the greasy fingerprints of those studio suits, whose clunky attempts to make a half-assed comedy out of a film which clearly began as something largely joyless were always destined to fail.  And yet, by God, one appreciates that they at least tried; for whatever else Suicide Squad was before they got ahold of it, I have no doubt in my mind that it must've been a genuine slog.

The comparisons to Guardians which we all drew months ago turn out to be uncut marketing mumbo jumbo: it is patently clear that the skeleton of this film lacks even the smallest funny bone.  There's hardly a single joke in the film that isn't some manner of wedged-in quip (or Smith's persona breaking free).  Every time you think a situation could be turned toward something funny, Ayer is there to just barrel straight ahead with the most quotidian, most dimly-lit run-and-gun actioner you could imagine.  And that itself registers as some kind of anti-miracle: for even in this film's original version, it did still star Smith and Robbie, and its story was built around a gaggle of goofball Z-list DC Comics supervillains who were seemingly tailor-made for the exact brand of zany antiheroic antics upon which this film was sold.  (We might well have also drawn some comparisons to Deadpool, then; but, somehow, Suicide Squad makes even the largely-anodyne adventures of Wade Wilson seem edgy.)

I don't know, perhaps this is just what happens when corporations try to synergize.  Rather than the old, well-regarded Suicide Squad comics—or, better yet, the newer Secret Six, Gail Simone's excellent spiritual successor (Ragdoll would break this movie in fucking half, man)—Warners decreed that their Squad would take after the crappy New 52 version instead.  Anyway, that's where Harley Quinn, and all her unappealingly-specific sexuality, came into the picture for the Squad.

Fans may be disappointed on this count.  Robbie is absolutely game—it's almost pitiable how much surplus energy she actually brings to a role that gives her nothing whatsoever beyond the chance to strike some kewl poses and throw out some bad jokes in insert shots—yet Ayer doesn't really seem all that interested in showcasing the very assets that made Harley a household name amongst fevered masturbators, even though everything from the costume design to the ad campaign to Robbie's performance itself seems terrifyingly keen to foreground the character's prodigious potential for clown-fetish cheesecake.

Well, there's a story here, although "premise" may be more accurate: following the events of Batman v Superman, the U.S. government, at the insistence of its toughest skulldugger, Amanda Waller, has decided it needs its own capability to fight superpowered threats.  And so Waller recruits a team of superpowered villains—more readily controllable once you put Escape From New York bombs in their necks—who are currently spending their lives in a hole in the ground in Louisiana.  (One presumes that most of them were put there by Batman, but this film follows BvS' insane lead, and drops the Flash into one cutaway scene, apparently because somebody at Warners was under the mistaken impression that they'd already made their Flash movie.)  Our villains' names?  Deadshot, the master marksman who only misses his daughter; Harley Quinn, the Joker's former psychiatrist and current crazy-as-shit girlfriend; Captain Boomerang, a man who throws boomerangs, and wears a jacket that says "Captain Boomerang"; Killer Croc, a man-beast who never even gets to eat anybody over the course of this whole two-hour movie; El Diablo, a tragic pyrokinetic (but aren't they all?); and Slipknot, who is introduced two minutes before an example is made of him by Waller, because, sweet Christ, is this film nothing if not tediously predictable.  Also, Katana (a superhero) is in this movie, too, because otherwise a semi-important magical maguffin (her sword) doesn't get brought to the table.

This task force, once mobilized, shall be rewarded for good performance with time off their sentences; but, of course, they'll be thrown into situations that shall almost certainly kill them, and it's abundantly clear that Waller doesn't care if that's exactly what happens.  In the field, however, they answer to one Rick Flag.  He's a cookie-cutter G.I., played by Joel Kinnaman, who spends virtually the entire film being generously invited into witty repartee by Will Smith; however, whenever he actually notices (not often), you can almost see the actor cry a little inside, before Ayer offers him relief and allows him to bark at one of his featured extra Army buddies instead.

Naturally, that means that Flag gets to be this story's lynchpin: Flag's girlfriend, an archaeologist who found herself possessed by an ancient goddess going by the name of "Enchantress," has gone rogue, and is the first big bad our antiheroes get sent to fight.

Maybe you noticed I barely mentioned the Joker at all!  Interesting, isn't it?  Why, it's almost like he's in the movie only because someone calculated that the Joker might sell a few extra tickets!

But seriously: the trailers themselves already suggest the better movie that Suicide Squad ought to have been, insofar as the trailers don't even hint at the fundamentally broken core conflict, which involves guys whose "superpowers" top out at "can shoot a gun really fast and accurately" trying and failing to fight Gozer and what appears to be an army of humans mutated into cucumbers—all while the Joker is standing right fucking there.  Likewise, that stupid fucking song (which, in fact, is used to introduce Harley Quinn within the movie itself!) has already given us a very clear idea of a movie that tells, above all, the story of how Harley found an identity outside of her psychotic beau.  But guess what?  Suicide Squad is emphatically not that film.  Instead, the Joker runs almost entirely parallel to the story in progress, and if he weren't here at all, it's hard to say exactly what would have changed.

It's terrifyingly inefficient screenwriting, for one thing; and, frankly, it's hard to believe professionals ever thought it was a good idea, to make a movie that features a Joker, and winds up being "about" the relationship between its female lead and the Joker (as much as it's ever "about" anything), but then sidelines all that potential drama in favor of an endless hour of PG-13 zombie action.  (And, of course, it all culminates in an airborne lightshow, described in dialogue as "a ring of trash in the sky"—as if trying to outrun the critics by calling your own movie a piece of garbage would somehow inoculate it from the fire of the truth.)

But, sure: this Joker does have his moments.  Obviously, poor Jared Leto shall always be remembered as the worst Joker, but that's not really too fair a competition.  I've got to admit that I enjoyed his energy (his forced laugh sounds like the Count from Sesame Street!), even though the very idea that Leto actually went Method to try to capture the Joker's insanity, only to have his already-pointless role cut down even further, makes me think that if Lawrence Olivier were still alive, he'd have holstered his immortal quip about "trying acting" instead of just being a dweeb, and simply straight-up slapped Leto in the mouth instead—but only for the man's own good.

Truly, it's hard to say where Leto's performance actually begins.  What I really responded to was the ridiculous makeup design he's sporting, alongside Robbie's Harley, for their makeup is the one thing in the movie that anybody seemed to put any serious thought into at all.  And it's kind of great—sure, the ultimate result of that serious thought was just the reverse-eureka moment that said, "I've got it!  Let's make this movie a pile of nu-metal-inflected nonsense!  The early 2000s are back!"; but, frankly, it would've been a lot of fun to wallow in that embarrassing subcultural moment, and I think that's maybe what most of us always wanted from Suicide Squad, anyway, back when we first started comparing it to Guardians.  (Which, after all, wallows totally in Star Wars, hardly the least embarrassing pop cultural rut you could lay down in.)

So that loops us right back around to the soundtrack: remember how James Gunn used a diegetic device to put such a wonderfully emotionally-coherent classic rock playlist into his movie, so that even though we could easily see through his artifice, it still added something special to the film?  Well, best you forget it: Suicide Squad runs all over creation, only coming close to realizing what made its prototype actually tick when it decides to indifferently layer Eminem's "Without Me" atop the montage of the Squad meeting for the first time.  Besides failing to link up to the scene itself in any really meaningful way, the fact that it nonetheless meshes tonally only ever seems like a complete fucking accident.

Suicide Squad is so routine.  It doesn't even have the decency to be hilariously broken; if it even is "broken," it's broken in the dullest way possible, at the base of its narrative.  Meanwhile, the most obvious flaw in its construction as a cinematic object—this movie begins somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty times, over and over, literally repeating whole set-ups and even repeating exposition—fades away soon enough.  So it doesn't even offer the schadenfreude of watching a film get completely FUBARed by its studio.  (Not that it's put together well, and not that roaring batshit would be better: remember Fantastic Four?)

Suicide Squad only ever idles.  There are still good parts: there's some fantastic J-horror-style imagery when it comes to Enchantress; occasionally Smith gets to interact with Robbie (though this movie wastes chemistry like Walter White's teaching career); a clever escape plot almost blossoms (though it dies upon the vine); and Viola Davis puts on a fierce performance as Waller (undermined only a little, thanks to the fact that Kinnaman's Flag manifests as nothing but the palest echo of his boss, which is the most obvious tell, besides the shocking absence of even one boomerang-based physical gag, that Ayer has absolutely no sense of humor—because a man with a sense of humor would've contrasted Waller and Flag, probably by making Flag as implacably nice as Waller is mean).  Finally, in the film's best and worst gesture, we get a heap of flashbacks—for Harley and the Joker, especially—and every last one appears to be from a vastly more interesting movie than the one we're stuck watching.  I mean, if this had been David Ayer's Mad Love, it might even have had a real shot at being something.

Instead, it's a big ball of mostly nothing.  Neither good nor bad, it does remain watchable.  Not the worst thing a film can be; and yet you'd prefer to believe that almost $180 million, the participation of two of our most agreeable performers, and a concept this rich would have resulted in something more than that.

Score: 4/10


  1. So, David Ayer. They decided to give him almost $200 million, and set him loose. OK, End of Watch was a great film and Street Kings was alright, but everything else he's directed has ranged from bad to pointless. Still, your point that the studio wanted to make their own Guardians is apt, and it shows. You can see the bones of a typical Ayer 'life-is-shit-and-everyone-is-a-monster' film in there, but they've mutilated it in the hopes that they can turn it into something as effortlessly light and yet meaningful as the Marvel film.

    Also, this probably has to be the least meaningful villain in recent comic book movie history, rivaled only by the recent FF's Doctor Doom. Seeing what they did with Enchantress, it could have potentially been really meaningful and heart-rending, as the bland GI (whose line about having to bury mistakes indicates to me that there's some darkness in him that we don't really explore) is forced to try and murder his possessed girlfriend, using all kinds of dangerous psychos. But because all we see of June Moone is the broken wreck that the Enchantress has made, or the Enchantress itself, we don't really connect emotionally with them. Smith's assassin with a heart of gold can't carry the emotional weight of the movie alone, and every other character is genuinely a bad person. Honestly, most of the movie just seems like I'm watching things happen, with no emotional connection or context. It's a spectacle, which is enough for a summer film, but if DC wants to compete with Marvel, they've got to do better.

    Is the Flash they have the guy from the Flash TV series? Are they thinking about incorporating their television shows into their movies?

    1. That's the thing, I don't think it is supposed to be the TV Flash; my understanding is that Arrow and Flash and Supergirl are part of one world (maybe part of different, insular worlds?), Gotham is obviously doing its own cool, ridiculous thing (Gotham is kind of amazing), and the movies MoS/BvS/SS are their separate continuity. Because goodness knows, you can't have a DC Universe without a lot of parallel realities, I guess.

      Not that the Flash in Suicide Squad and BvS being the TV Flash would be an unalloyed good thing, but at least that might kind of make sense.

      Am I all wrong about that?

      Anyway, Ayer hasn't done well these past few years: my understanding is that Sabotage was the definition of anti-fun, and I witnessed the overdetermined misery of Fury with my own two eyes. (Fury's even more awful if you ever watch Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, which I hadn't when I reviewed it: it steals shots from that film, which is about Germans on the Eastern Front and somehow isn't either as morally compromised or as hilariously clumsy in its effort to be depressing. The tank action is arguably better in Cross of Iron, too, but, I'll admit: that is the one thing Fury truly excels at, and a forty minute supercut of the action sequences of Fury would be a hell of a little short film, even if it felt kind of weird and pointless.)

      And, yeah, the attempt to make us feel feelings for these guys in Task Force X has got to be one of the most perfunctory in history. "You're my family now!" say several characters, despite the fact that they've known each other for a few hours, and spent most of them pointedly ignoring one another.

    2. (All that said, Snyder's got his finger on my pulse. Mine alone, but still. Too bad about the outrageous hate boner everybody else has for the poor guy.)

  2. I must confess I had opposite reactions to Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman, but there's definitely a ceiling for SS where there's no excuse for liking it more than a 6/10.

    I'd love to see a Harley Quinn guided by another writer and director, because I think she could be superb. But right now, she's too all over the place to be as iconic as they're trying to convince us she is.

    1. Personally, I'm liking Suicide Squad less and less the more I think and talk about it; that 5/10 might've been generous. I was discussing it earlier, and wound up saying I'd honestly rather watch Jurassic World again.

      The elements for a swell movie were all here, yeah. That's the biggest disappointment.