Dir: David Ayer, 123 mins, starring: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis
*CAUTION: MINOR SPOILERS FOR SUICIDE SQUAD AHEAD*
There is a very telling moment toward the end of Suicide Squad that underlines just why the film feels so unsatisfactory and so riven with contradictions. Its main characters, a crew of super-villains, have a spell put on them and begin to fantasise about the lives they’d really like to lead. The entire movie has been telling us that these characters are “the worst of the worst”, vicious psychopaths who use their meta-human abilities to kill, steal and wreak havoc.
We learn, though, that they all secretly yearn for nice, cosy lives with their loved ones. “Pussy” is the insult of choice used by Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie in an enjoyably over-the-top performance) for anyone who isn’t as bad as he or she pretends to be – and it could be applied to every single member of the cast. The real problem with the Suicide Squad is that its members are nowhere near nasty enough.
Suicide Squad has a 15 certificate (instead of the 12A that most summer blockbusters are given). The expectations were that this would be a film with an edge; that it would touch on some very dark themes. With Jared Leto playing Joker, the promise was of a return to the kind of storytelling found in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). Sadly, that doesn’t prove to be the case at all.
This is an ensemble piece – which means that the exposition is painfully cumbersome. The filmmakers introduce us to all the villains one by one, sketching in their backstories and showing off their special powers. Most are inmates in a “black site” in Louisiana, a secret penitentiary in which the most incorrigible rogues are jailed. We are first introduced to Deadshot (a very muscular Will Smith), an assassin for hire who has a grudge against Batman.
Other inmates include Harley Quinn, a former psychiatrist who fell under the spell of Joker and is now his female mirror image; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a sewer-dwelling reptilian type; El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), an LA gangbanger with uncanny pyrotechnical abilities and Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Aussie master-thief who likes to work alone.
To complicate matters, Joker is on the outside, desperate to be reunited with Harley Quinn. The most formidable villainess of all is seemingly the most demure one – an archaeologist called June Moore (Cara Delevingne). From time to time, June is possessed by an ancient sorceress whose spirit she has reawakened. A bit like Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz, Enchantress doesn’t have a heart: it has been plucked out of her and whoever owns it can control her actions.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is the high-level US Government official who convinces the generals and the politicians that these renegades can be pressed into action against their will to protect the free world (and to steal Iranian secrets if the need arises.)
In essence, this is a retread of The Dirty Dozen. Instead of Lee Marvin, we have Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag, the upstanding field leader of the Suicide Squad. Waller has a hold on him because she knows he is in love with June Moore. Flag, in his turn, thinks he can control the members of his squad. They’re essentially being blackmailed to fight for the Government.
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The plotting here is haphazard and convoluted. The Suicide Squad is up against an ancient enemy who has the power to harness electricity and to create his own army from anyone he encounters on the streets of Midway City.
In what is a very choppy and episodic film, director David Ayer uses a very wide mix of music, including a lot of retro songs, to pump the action along. (The soundtrack includes everything from “House Of The Rising Sun” to “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”.)
Some of the performances are very vivid. Leto’s Joker matches that of Heath Ledger in his gleeful and utterly psychotic malevolence – but, confusingly, he is not the main antagonist and is on screen only relatively briefly. With her ponytails, cheerleader’s outfit and smudged make-up, Margot Robbie’s Harley is the strongest comic character in the film, continually undercutting Flag and her other Suicide Squad colleagues with her sarcastic one-liners, all delivered with a disarmingly friendly smile. She even takes time out to steal a handbag.
We know from the outset that Will Smith is not the type to play an out and out villain. Throughout the film, he and the other members of the Suicide Squad are trying so hard to be ingratiating that they risk undermining their own status as unreformed criminals. Batman (Ben Affleck), who briefly appears, actually seems far more sinister than they do.
Individual scenes, for example Deadshot’s intricately plotted assassinations or Joker’s raid on a secret lab, are choreographed in ingenious fashion. The big set-pieces, though, are strictly kids’ comic book hokum. There are big fight scenes in offices and lifts and on the streets of Midway City in which the Suicide Squad uses swords, fists, guns and even baseball bats to repel their enemies.
The villains speak with absurdly amplified voices. There are a lot of electric effects and scenes of characters and buildings being consumed by fire. By the final reel, the Suicide Squad members are behaving little differently than any other super-heroes. This surely defeats the entire point of the movie, which is that they are supposed to be bad guys who are doing good only under the most extreme sufferance.
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