It Borders on Ruin Porn: Perry Lam reviews ‘Suicide Squad’

‘Bad vs Evil’ is the theme that David Ayer constantly reminds everyone in his interviews and comic convention appearances. This is true not just for Suicide Squad but of David Ayer’s directorial career. Ayer’s output functions as character examinations of bad people with badder intentions. In ‘Fury’, it is a bitter journey with a war weary tank crew in their struggle against the Nazis and in ‘End of Watch’, we are witnesses to a pair of cops running afoul of a Mexican cartel, with horrific consequences. However, with the shift to mainstream blockbuster filmmaking, Ayer’s penchant for delving into his protagonists’ psyche is put to its ultimate test in Suicide Squad.

Probably the most anarchic blockbuster release of the year, not only is Suicide Squad David Ayer’s blockbuster debut but Warner Bros. last ditch scramble to resuscitate their fledgling cinematic universe, their earlier effort, Batman v Superman only serves to disconnect the audience to the DC Comics brand. Not that it needs any resuscitation in my opinion, it is a fine piece of comic book myth forging but there is a popular consensus (that is slowly revising itself) that the film did not serve the audience. While Suicide Squad is more of a crowd pleaser that DC’s previous attempts at comic book adaptations, which often take the form of super serious, spandex clad social commentary, Suicide Squad does not close to being their best effort at mainstream entertainment.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) forms a motley crew of incarcerated super villains for a black ops mission, a ‘suicide squad’. Unwanted and expendable, the criminals have to learn to trust each other, as well as their leader, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and do it fast, as they are sent to battle an otherworldly threat in the form of the Enchantress, a former member of the squad that went rogue. At the same time, the psychotic criminal mastermind Joker (Jared Leto) lurks in the shadows, waiting for the right time to strike.

The strongest portion of the film is easily the first twenty minutes. Be in awe of a rip roaring, neon drenched primal scream of an introduction. Through rapid fire vignettes and flashbacks, explosive exposition and a rock and rumble soundtrack, each character’s motivations and personality are displayed in violent flamboyance. Deadshot! Harley Quinn! Captain Boomering! Killer Croc! El Diablo! Boom, boom, boom, boom. The vignettes turbocharge the narrative, giving the most amount of exposition with the shortest amount of time, achieving more storytelling that the next two acts of the film combined. The vignettes/flashbacks also creates the opportunity for cameos to serve a more important story purpose: How these super villains ended up in prison. A not-so-subtle hint, most of them fought the Bat and the Bat won.

Once the opening rush of accelerated adrenaline simmers down, the plot struggles with what it wants to be, going into several different directions at once. A hydra tearing itself apart. The story’s weakness isn’t that it is messy, it is pretty coherent. The problem is its indecisiveness. There are traces of Ayer’s confrontational and robust approach to character building, especially in scenes with character interaction. Deadshot and Rick Flag get to cross verbal swords on several occasions, debating the moral differences between an assassin and a soldier. El Diablo’s tragic origin story infuses an otherwise throwaway character with a strong sense of relatability. The characters also provide one of the best scenes in the film, the squad go barhopping in the midst of all the chaos, giving us a glimpse at the crazies behaving in the brief respite of normalcy. But these strong character work never truly enter the ring as the main event, serving only as supplement to the confusing main plot. Katana and Killer Croc are the biggest victims of this, the former only getting two scenes of character establishment while the latter has none.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The lack of character development  is a consequence of the weakly established tone. The film is a mess tonally, after the Dirty Dozen-esque freakshow of an opening act, we take a sharp left to fantasy action movie territory. While simultaneously there is a psycho-thriller romance angle serving as a minor story arc for Harley Quinn and the Joker. It is three genres too many. The film works overtime to fulfil its story obligations and while it is coherent, the tone constantly shift between a supervillain examination piece to a fantasy, Hellboy-esque action picture to a toxic romance, the characters simply aren’t given a chance to establish themselves and if they do it once, there have to do it another two more times within those genre conventions, which they never do.

There is also the problem of protagonist and antagonist relations. I know it is a comic book movie but the Suicide Squad itself seems ill equipped to deal with a threat of this magnitude, the Enchantress is a supernatural, lovecraftian cosmic level threat. The Suicide Squad on the other hand are a black ops outfit rostered with killers, crazy people and a crocodile man. It feels like they got the wrong assignment. Who you gonna call? This mission is right up the Ghostbusters’ alley.

As bad as the second act is, it is nothing compared to the third act, when it assumes control, you will feel the nosedive. Firstly, all character nuances in the first two acts are forgotten, suddenly everyone is friends because they must battle a common threat. These are super villains we are talking about, crazy in their crimes and monstrous in their grandiosity, it is a stretch to even consider that all of them would suddenly work together for the greater good.

 

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Secondly, the third act transforms (I don’t know if this is intentional or not) into a 1990s action movie. Remember the hilariously cheesy third acts of those 90s Jean Claude Van Damme movies, the ones which ends with a climatic kung fu fight scene to decide the fate of the universe and all its inhabitants? Of course not. But when Enchantress suddenly becomes a sword wielding kung fu master, this movie robs Van Damme clichés and gives a sharp jolt to refresh your memory. It makes no story sense whatsoever although I do admit, I loved that scene for utterly ironic reasons.

While lacking development, characters are still the best part of the movie. A testament to Ayer’s ability to create strong personalities, even against a script with this much tonal chaos. Viola Davis gives a committed and intimidating performance as Amanda Waller, the Suicide Squad’s creator. Davis’ is stoic for most of the film, uncompromising in dealing with the vicious band of criminals at her disposal, she is brutal authority personified. Though this leads to comedic moments, like watching Captain Boomerang’s ego shrink as Waller lays down the dubious benefits of volunteering for the squad. 10 years off three consecutive life sentences is all that was offered. Ouch.

Joel Kinnaman plays it straight and narrow for Rick Flag, there is not much to say about Flag, other than he is a soldier’s soldier. As the only non-costumed squad member, his only purpose is to serve as a voice of reason and sanity against the deranged point of views of his band of criminals.

Suicide Squad’s take on Harley Quinn does have some traces of the comic counterpart but make no mistake, this is Margot Robbie’s rendition and not a straight adaptation. Robbie owns the punk rock, tongue out rebellious aesthetic and due to the Joker’s lack of screen time, she manages to carry the bulk of the dramatic scenes that showcase the dark, poisonous relationship between her and the Clown Prince of Crime. It is ‘The Notebook’ for sociopaths.

Deadshot is the heart of the movie, or should I say, Will Smith is the heart of this movie and the film would not be the least bit interesting without him. Will Smith’s portrayal is wholly inaccurate to the comics but it does not matter, Will Smith is back! In a watchable movie! In Smith, Suicide Squad displays the fundamental difference between an actor and an actual HOLLYWOOD STAR. While everyone else is going full on method playing their roles, Will Smith is STILL Will Smith and that is all he needs to be. With his charisma tuned to gigawatt levels and his screen presence oozing out the frame, you will forgive and forget that he does not resemble Deadshot in the slightest. Smith’s magnetic allure gives a significant boost to Ayer’s character development; the face offs and dialogue exchanges with cast not only serves to develop Deadshot character but also creates interesting creases on the other characters as well, as they work off Smith’s force of personality.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Against the current of modern superhero blockbusters, Will Smith’s Deadshot is an oddity. Smith himself belongs to a forgone era in Hollywood, a time when the actor is bigger than the role he plays, one of the last outlaws in a new world. Similar to his contemporaries, Cruise and Schwarzenegger, Smith has the ability to carry an entire movie on his back and in the case of Suicide Squad, he is able to make a bad script good, solely pulling it past the finishing line with his strength of character and line delivery.

As for the rest of the squad, they do not get beyond one or two scenes of development, so we barely know them. Jai Courtney is hilarious as Captain Boomerang but otherwise, he adds very little to the actual plot beyond a few funny one liners and being a literal narrative boomerang, leaving the squad for a while before reappearing in the next scene. El Diablo is probably the only minor squad member with an actual story arc, and props to Jay Hernandez for giving a tortured performance as the squad’s resident pyrokinetic and making the most out of his small role. As mentioned, Katana and Killer Croc fairs the worse, the former is utterly wasted despite having the most interesting backstory in the team and a confident performance by Karen Fukuhara, the film affords only two scenes that expand on her otherwise underwritten character. As for Killer Croc, he is just there. He does not do anything beyond standing around and acting tough.

Speaking of standing around and acting tough, Cara Delevingne is appalling as the Enchantress, the weakest link in the entire film. The script seems to treat the Enchantress as a throwaway villain, not giving her any great acts of villainy beyond turning a few extras into unimaginative Lovecraftian zombies, Delevingne’s portrayal only aggravates the already awful situation. It is all cheese and camp, she hangs around a beam of light, jutting and twitching her limbs in odd angles every few seconds. The villain is one of the most important pieces of a film, providing a counterpoint to the hero’s struggle. So it is shocking to see Suicide Squad completely misjudge this aspect of the production and botching it to the high heavens. It might not come a surprise, Ayer’s body of work does not feature compelling villains at all, he is great at deconstructing his heroes but rarely does he succeed in providing a villain you love to hate. In a film of ‘Bad vs Evil’, evil simply didn’t show up. It’s all bad.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

In terms of cameos, every Joker embodies the problems of their time period. Heath Ledger’s was a critique of the terrorism and its single-minded pursuit to ‘watching the world burn’. Jared Leto’s does away with the dogmatic terrorist ideology and philosophical musings in favour of gold plated guns and neon lit sports cars. This is the Joker for the materialistic, success obsessed Instagram generation. Leto’s Joker performance is impressive, relying on his menacing snarl and  boisterous but gradual hyena laugh to unnerve and intimidate. He is the most comic accurate of the long line of Jokers and at times feel like he stepped out the pages of an Alex Ross painted comic book.

Yet due to his disappointing lack of screen time, the jury is still out on Leto’s ability to carry the villainy of an entire film. Also worth mentioning, personally, it feels like a total crime to have both the Joker AND FREAKIN’ BATMAN in the same movie and not let both of them go at it or at the very least, face off. One can argue that a confrontation of this magnitude will probably be better served in a solo Batman feature. Still looks like a wasted opportunity to me.

Technicals are what we come to expect from a DC movie adaptation, no one does production values like DC. The movie is gorgeous to look at, especially the prison that houses the squad, it is wonderfully photographed and by that I mean the prison looks decrepit. The same goes for Midway City, where the bulk of the plot takes place, it has shades of John Carpenter’s 1981 cult classic ‘ Escape from New York’, everything either appears destroyed or broken down, it borders on ruin porn. The production design of the film is spectacular across the board, with different prison cells highlighting each character’s personalities. It looks fittingly dreary and nihilistic. A serious house on serious earth.  The character designs retain the visual essence of each character while adding onto the tapestry. I dare say it, most of the costumes look better here than in the Suicide Squad comics, Deadshot’s crimson armor, Captain Boomerang’s tradie inspired ensemble and Katana’s clean but menacing uniform are all interesting additions to their character’s mythology.

The opening vignette and flashback sequences stand out the most visually, Katana’s flashback fight scene in exquisitely shot, a furious ballet in the rain. Eagle eyed comic book fans will also notice several references to iconic DC comic book covers in the flashbacks, including one legendary Alex Ross painting of Harley Quinn and the Joker. Much of the action is competently shot but also serves a reminder that there can be too much action in the movie, with the script force feeding one action scene after another, we lose the opportunity to immerse in the story world. Instead of an exhilarating experience, the action scenes grow tedious, and the audience end up waiting for the next volley of character building scenes so we can hear Captain Boomerang quip again.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

In terms of soundtrack, DC has a reputation of producing the best soundtracks for their films, a reputation that continues with Suicide Squad. It is loud, eclectic and extravagant. The tracklist reads like a who’s who of the music industry. Kanye West. Skrillex. Eminem. With a bit of The Animals and Creedence Clearwater Revival thrown in for good measure. These music tracks work best in the character introductions, transforming each vignette into each squad member’s personal music video. Once again, the indecisive script rears its head, adversely affecting the music. The dazzling pop, rock and hip hop tracks evaporate within the first 40 minutes. As the Enchantress puts her plan into action, the rock and rolling is replaced by a generic action score by Steven Price. The score isn’t bad but it is nothing special, especially when compared to the vibrant aural assault in the opening act.

At their best, DC movies are known to provide societal critique with pop culture entertainment, like in the case of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman. At its worst, DC tries too hard to be ‘cool’ and we end up with Green Lantern. Suicide Squad is not that bad though, the best way to put it is, the film wants to be cool but in its attempt, it forgot what made it interesting in the first place.

This is not a bad movie but I cannot say it is a good one either, it is a movie that despite its best intentions, fall into a grey area of ‘I guess its okay’. Unlike the polarizing Batman v Superman, this film wants to please mainstream audiences, promising a lot of action and humor and less brooding and angst. I would surmise that is why didn’t succeed as well as it should have. The result, while mildly entertaining, never reaches its full potential as a fun time and also strays too far from the DC formula of pop culture creative statements.

 

** and a half / 5

An uneven rock opera. Interesting characters, great visuals and music are undone by a horrible third act, an appalling villain and a tonally confused script. Suicide Squad is a life lesson. It is proof that massive potential does not mean anything unless you fulfil it.

I also reviewed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I felt is one of the best films DC  and Warner Bros. has put out, the review is available here.

 

If you like this, go watch:

Street Fighter (1994)- Colourful, dumb and starring Kylie Minogue. Also includes a climatic fight to decide the fate of the world. This is Suicide Squad without the crazy people, although everyone still kind of acts crazy anyway.

Mean Girls (2004)- If you like all that inter-team bickering, this movie takes it to the next level. A definitive movie of the 2000s.

Fury (2014)- Ayer’s best to date. A harrowing, claustrophobic journey with a WWII tank crew in the waning days of the war.

Tokyo Tribes (2014)- Sion Sono’s manga adaptation is vibrant, eccentric 90 minute rap video, one of the coolest movies ever made.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: The Ultimate Cut (2016)- If The Dark Knight Trilogy is the Old Testament of the DC Extended Universe, then Batman v Superman is the New. This movie encapsulates all the strengths and weaknesses of Warner Bros. fledging cinematic universe.

 

 

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Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

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