Review: Suicide Squad
Director: David Ayer
By Rhys Tarling
Suicide Squad is a hot glowing mess. The story is paint-by-numbers in structure yet borderline incoherent in content, the character motivations are muddied by choppy editing (it doesn’t feel like it was ‘edited’ so much as bludgeoned and left for the worms) and the tone is “punishingly grim” and “unashamedly goofy” artlessly stuffed into a blender. Ultimately, it’s salvaged by a few great performances and a uniquely anarchic energy that make even the messiest parts of this messy film glimmer in interesting ways.
The first twenty minutes or so are terrific. It’s solely used as an introduction to each of the members of the Suicide Squad, a death squad assembled by intelligence officer Amanda Waller (an awesomely menacing Viola Davis) to fight superhuman threats. The introduction to each of the members is accompanied by a pop song to grant the expository proceedings some style and flash. It’s essentially a bloated music video but this is the area where Suicide Squad works best; as a deranged pop video.
For Task Force X – our titular squad– there’s assassin-who-never-misses Deadshot (Will Smith back in fine form), psychologist turned psychotic gangster and the Joker’s lover Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), former gangbanger who can control fire and who’s renounced a life of violence El Diablo (Jay Hernandez). And the rest – human crocodile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), petty thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and vengeful magic sword wielding vigilante Katana (Karen Fukuhara). These rowdy assholes are kept in line by soldier Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman, asleep at the wheel). They’re assembled to fight Enchantress, a 6000 year old demon witch that is possessing an archeologist (Cara Delevingne). She has the ability to magically imbue people with some kind of crusty black goop that allows the squad to dish out brutal albeit M flavoured violence. Enchantress and her brother are particularly lame villains, looking like cobbled together creations from every generic supernatural movie ever. For the most part the villainous actions consist of Cara Delevingne slithering against a green screen. Just a bad choice. But in the context of this film that leans hard into a brutalist grim ‘n’ gritty aesthetic, it’s at least an interestingly bad choice.
The aforementioned rest are merely there to fill out the screen. They’re given nothing of interest to do. It’s a shame too because Jai Courtney imbues Captain Boomerang with all sorts of strange quirks and mannerisms but he’s given no framework to hang all that stuff on, no character foundation. Which is indicative of a larger problem: that if the villainous threat this group of shitbags and psychos have been assembled to fight is lame and boring, at least the team dynamics can be interesting and fun to watch, right? Well, not if half of them are completely underdeveloped. There’s some stuff in the last act that weakly attempts to illustrate how the squad have bonded and grown together, but it’s stuff that was never set up, so the payoff is non-existent.
And once-a-goddamn-gain the third act climaxes with our heroes needing to destroy a doomsday doodad that shoots a blue beam of energy into the sky. Stop with this. It was played out in 2013. Okay it’s a generic act but at least you could call it an act. The middle portion of Suicide Squad briefly turns into a meandering, punishing and grungy urban action film. The squad fight hordes of magical zombie things encased in crusty black goop to little narrative purpose other than to fill out the runtime and show off a little of that 150 million dollar plus budget. Some of the action is quite brutal fun and the characters, even the cardboard cut-out ones, hold your interest, but boy is it a shambling mess.
Suicide Squad marks the cinematic debut of the insanely popular DC character Harley Quinn who, incidentally, debuted in the hugely acclaimed animated Batman show. She fares quite well here. Margot Robbie deftly handles the two extremes of Harley’s good-natured sweetness and simmering psychotic anger. But her origin story is really rushed. Whether it was a victim of the messy editing process or writer/director David Ayer wanted to skim past the abusive nature of Joker and Harley’s relationship, I don’t know. However, the few scenes she shares with Jared Leto’s Joker are electric and, despite the gross nature of their relationship, like the implication that the Joker pimps Harley out, are strangely alluring in their vileness. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cruel, sexist shit. But this is about villains, not superheroes – mean nasty garbage is par for the course.
Jared Leto presents an interesting take on the Joker that’s different enough from Jack Nicholson’s demented artist or Heath Ledger’s deranged nihilist. Here, Leto shows us a Joker who’s a sensual creep and speaks like a mob boss from a 40s gangster movie if he were constantly high on meth. It’s fascinating but not in service of much at all. He has no interaction with the rest of the squad and is only here to get his girlfriend back . Also, the film kneecaps him at every opportunity. It’s like they were deathly afraid that the mere presence of the Joker would swallow everything whole, and as a result Leto never really gets a chance to make a big impact. He doesn’t get Nicholson’s “I make art until someone dies” kind of line or Ledgers “Why so serious?” type of moment.
Will Smith kicks that old Will Smith charm into gear and makes a fine leading man for this film. He brings the comedy without undercutting the pathos. He, along with Jay Fernandez as El Diablo, are the closest thing Suicide Squad has to a heart. A shrivelled heart, but a heart nonetheless. “I just want my daughter to see me as someone who’s not a piece of shit,” Deadshot says and it’s the closest thing to warmth in this cold world Ayer has crafted .They’re not exactly heroic but they do get character arcs that threaten to become poignant.
Suicide Squad is a lot like the Suicide Squad itself – a lot of disjointed and interesting elements that never quite coalesces into something greater than the sum of its parts. But it’s crazy fun. Despite the sloppily constructed narrative and thin characters, it’s never dull. It strangely works on its own nonsensical terms.