Movie Review: Suicide Squad

Another attempt to get the DC universe spinning has some refreshingly edgy characters but a generic plot

Suicide Squad
Directed by David Ayer
With Will Smith, Jared Leto. Margot Robbie. Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne

It has been a tough summer at the box office for comic book–based and franchise films, most of which were sequels. Suicide Squad comes out of the what is called the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), and is related to characters from Batman — but is not technically a sequel in that series. It has some good things going for it, including a strong cast and some fairly edgy characters. It also falls into a few traps, including too much reliance and a massive special effects scene that is a virtual clone of every other massive special effects scene from every recent extravaganza. It is time to give the giant electrical storm / earthquake / collapsing building / ripped street / exploding helicopter software package a rest and come up with a real story instead.

But compared to some of the other franchise films, which have gotten stale, there is enough original in the approach to make a bit of a tiny oasis in an otherwise scorched desert of summer entertainment.

The plot, which takes too long to get going, is that some of the most hardened criminals will be put together into a special unit to fight against potential dangers, as conventional methods might not be enough. There is a fear of a rogue Superman. But only a couple of the people in the squad have super powers — one can make flames and another has crocodile skin — the rest are simply psychopaths and sociopaths, so the script is already on shaky ground with huge holes.

Their is a painfully long period of introducing the characters. Rival comic-book-film franchise Marvel tackled this problem by giving its heroes, including Iron Man, The Hulk and Captain America (and even Ant-Man but not Black Widow) their own films before the big ensemble piece. Suicide Squad jams a bunch of mini-movies into a secret government meeting.

Once the pacing picks up again, Margot Robbie steals the show as Harley Quinn, a former psychiatrist who was transformed by The Joker (Jared Leto) into a psychopathic killer in hot pants who speaks with a Brooklyn accent. Her preferred weapon is a baseball bat. Why an anti-terror squad needs a crazy girl with a baseball bat is not explained, but most viewers will not quibble. She is the best thing by far in Suicide Squad.

Leto also pulls out all the stops as The Joker, a role that in the past was played by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. Leto is if anything even more deranged than Ledger in his approach to the character, which many thought was not possible. Oddly, though, he is not the villain in this piece, just a side character who pops up now and again to keep the film from getting boring.

Top-billed in the film is Will Smith, who recently sat out the sequel to Independence Day. He plays an expert marksman named Deadshot. He handles his scenes well, but as the relatively sane one amid all the crazies, he does not stand out. His story, though, of a man who wants to get back to see his daughter grow up, is the most human element in this demented circus of costumed evil clowns.

The villain and what the villain wants gets us into messy territory. The project to make an anti-terror squad to battle evil people with super powers is what in fact unleashes the villain. If they had just done nothing, then there would have been no problem to fight in the first place. It is a nice irony about military blowback that is a bit lost in the telling.

The idea of an ancient spirit unleashed by accident, and that spirit trying to control the world through a massive hurricane of computer effects is not new. It is essentially the same plot as X-Men Apocalypse, which just came out in May.

The film is a jumble of puzzle pieces hammered awkwardly into place, and some sources have suggested that a too ambitious release date, conflicting visions of the film's tone and scathing reviews for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice sent film studio executives into a panic, and the proverbial too many chefs were unleashed at the last minute to fix something that might not have been broken. The result is some good scenes and good characters, even some good acting, mixed with misplaced flashbacks, a muddled plot that might have once made sense, and too many special effects thrown in so that the sound and fury might cover up the resulting nothingness.

Writer-director David Ayer has made some films with a dark edge, including writing U-571, The Fast and Furious, and Training Day, as well as writing and directing the war drama Fury. But he never made a big-budget franchise film before, where the studio's box-office-oriented vision trumps all other concerns. The advertisements apparently promised a more humorous and whimsical tone than Ayer's original vision. The version that was released is said to be a bit of a rushed compromise.

It is worth seeing for Harley Quinn and The Joker. A scene during the end credits hints at a sequel, so maybe Harley Quinn will be back with a more coherent story.

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