Saturday, August 06, 2016

Review: Suicide Squad

Task Force X, a.k.a. the Suicide Squad, is the US government's answer to a world of Wonder Women and Supermen: it's a team made up of the baddest villains, who are offered a chance to stretch their legs (and maybe some reduced sentences) if they'll risk their necks to protect the USA from... unconventional threats. And this weekend, this little known comic book team hit the big screen in the latest superhero blockbuster. The movie's tagline: "Worst. Heroes. Ever." 

If you define 'heroes' as 'the ones who save the day' instead of the 'good guys' (because they are certainly not good guys), then the members of Suicide Squad actually may be the best heroes ever - at least the best heroes we have in the DC film universe so far. This is because writer/director David Ayers (Fury) manages to do something I never expected going into the movie: with a large ensemble cast, he crafts some of the most interesting, layered, and well-developed characters in the whole DC film slate. (Granted, there are only three films out so far, but the others were longer, with much smaller casts, and, one would think, had more opportunity to create strong characters.)

More on this below.

First, let me mention some of the movie's problems, because there are absolutely problems:
  • The narrative is rushed. Like I already mentioned, this is the shortest of the modern DCEU films (20 minutes shorter than Man of Steel, a half hour shorter than Batman v. Superman). That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I think they could have used a few extra minutes. The development of the central conflict in the film and the appearance of the main villain felt artificial to me, and I think that had to do with it being rushed. The character development and backstories roll out at a liesurely pace, spread throughout the film, but this central plot point sort of comes out of nowhere, and it was pretty jarring.
  • There are a few lame moments in the action sequences. In a big, summer blockbuster action flick, that's unfortunate. Most of it's handled very well, really, but there were a few silly bits that disrupted whole sequences for me. Case in point: I don't need any slow motion Harley Quinn dodging and weaving. She's a psychiatrist, not an acrobat.
  • Speaking of Harley, she was both one of the best parts and a weak point in the movie. The filmmakers knew they had an incredibly popular character on their hands and a pitch perfect performance by Margot Robbie, and they decided to milk it for all it was worth. And then some. More on Harley below, but I think she was overused, and the movie could have been stronger if the Harley Quinn lagniappe had been dedicated to other characters or plot threads. The flashbacks added to her story; the elevator scene did not. Oh, and they could have salvaged an extra minute for the story just by trimming the multiple 'everybody watch Harley walk off in her itty-bitty bottoms' shots.
  • However unique Suicide Squad is among the comic book film glut of the last decade, it still comes off as stale a few times simply because, at this point, we've pretty much seen it all. The story throws us some curve balls, but the general arc of the narrative is predictable. Even the worst heroes ever still have to save the day in the end. 
OK, that's enough of that. Because - unless you're a professional film critic, apparently - no one's going to walk away from the theater talking about the movie's problems. They aren't nearly as impressive as its successes.

Those successes, by and large, are the characters. As you might expect, Harley Quinn and Deadshot (Will Smith) steal the show. Harley, the Joker's cackling paramour, may be overused, but she's also funny, intriguing, and her insanity (or is it just mad love?) is, well, adorable. I can't imagine another actress in the role - Robbie just knocks the ball out of the park. Deadshot is a smug assassin who never misses his mark, and Will Smith is perfect for the part. This character allows to the filmmakers to revel in over-the-top gunmanship in a way seldom seen since The Matrix, and it's as entertaining as ever.

Will Smith and Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad
None of that really came as a surprise. What did was how interesting and sympathetic both characters are. As I've mentioned, the film is generous when it comes to character backstories, and this is nowhere more effective than with Harley and Deadshot. The cold-hearted killer's family drama and devotion to his daughter and the mental health professional who fell desperately in love with a murderous mental case both just work, and you're left actually caring about the characters.

And the surprises didn't stop there. Perhaps the single most compelling character in the film is Diablo, portrayed by Jay Hernandez (I knew him from Crazy/Beautiful and The Rookie). This is a character I was totally unfamiliar with and totally uninterested in going into the movie, but his humanity made him stand out from the rest of the ensemble. Diablo is the only member of the task force who is disturbed by how dangerous he is. While the others blithely go about their work, joking and carefree, Diablo understands that he's a villain but refuses to own it. Hernandez has the presence to make that a powerful element in the film.

Viola Davis's Amanda Waller, the government official who assembled the Suicide Squad (and holds their leash), left you wanting more by the film's end. She is a potent reminder that this is not your everyday superhero story - it's full of shades of grey and ugly black marks, things that DC's forcibly inserted into their Superman films in recent years, but that are really at home in Suicide Squad. I look forward to seeing more of her in the future.

Killer Croc, Captain Boomerang, and Katana (whose sword, as in the comics, captures the souls of those it slays - way to embrace the material!) don't disappoint either. Really, the only character who did was Rick Flagg (Joe Kinnamon), but hey, you can't win them all, right?
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Jared Leto's highly anticipated take on the Joker. Leto had the unenviable job of following Heath Ledger's Academy Award winning performance in The Dark Knight back in 2008, but I think he serves with distinction here. His Joker is more colorful and zany, less brooding that Ledger's, but he's no less unnerving and felt more like the Joker of the comic books, or even Batman: The Animated Series. With Harley at his side and a gang of killers in cartoon panda bear costumes, I can only hope we see Leto's Joker at the center of Ben Affleck's upcoming, solo Batman film. Those two could potentially give us the definitive live-action adaptation of the classic comic book rivalry.

I've spent so much time talking about the characters because they are why Suicide Squad works. Most of the critics seem to be panning the film, but there's another word for that: hatin'. They're just hatin'. Because, while the story may not be the most exciting, the characters are captivating, the performers deliver, and that combined with big action and plenty of unexpected turns makes Suicide Squad a thrill, and as satisfying a summer blockbuster superhero film as you're going to find. If you were hoping for more than that then, well, you're like the people who went into Cowboys and Aliens hoping for more than Harrison Ford riding horses and killing aliens with a six-shooter (spoiler alert: they were disappointed). Adjust your expectations and enjoy the show.

I've seen people asking online, 'is the movie family friendly?' Nope. It's about super villains... and not like Despicable Me. It's a harder PG-13 than most of the Marvel films: the film is darker (in more ways than one), violent from beginning to end, and more sexual than the competition - just not the sort of thing I'd take my kid to. I couldn't help noticing, though, the gobs of teenage girls at the movie. As near as I could tell, they were all there for Harley Quinn. While not much of a role model, maybe this is a sign that girls are looking for strong, entertaining female characters that these movies simply haven't been offering. Perhaps that bodes well for next year's Wonder Woman film. Of course, Wonder Woman is as different from Harley as they come, but we'll see.

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