September 14, 2016

Suicide Squad (2016)

Following the death of Superman, government operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) uses her leverage in Washington to establish Task Force X: a top secret team of imprisoned super-criminals intended to head into certain-death crises and resolve them on the promise of having their prison sentences reduced. When the first of her metahuman operatives breaks free - the mysterious Enchantress (Carla Delevingne) - Waller sends in the rest of the team to take her down.

Warner Bros' haphazard attempt to replicate the Marvel Studios formula with the DC Comics suite of characters continues in Suicide Squad. It is a colourful mess of a film. Some parts work remarkably well, but there is a sense they were only found by accident after writer/director David Ayer and the studio simultaneously threw literally every available situation, tone, character and plot beat at the problem. It would be ridiculous to attempt to claim that it is a good film, but much like its immediate DC predecessor Batman v Superman it is at times a relatively enjoyable one. They have picked some very high quality ingredients, but they have tossed them all in a blender.

This is probably going to turn into a film that simply lists problems, so we may as well dive in. Problem one: the screenplay is woefully undercooked. Not only is it episodic but it is also messy. The first act is a real chore: it begins by introducing characters in vignettes, then abandons that approach to actual kick off the story proper - but then it jumps back into showing off character vignettes. The stop-start nature of these opening scenes wastes an awful lot of audience goodwill. Once the plot kicks in properly - the Enchantress starts building a massive magical Earth-killing machine in the middle of Midway City - things feel very much written as they were shot, scene by scene. It is weirdly repetitive: the film follows up a shoot-out between the task force and some magical zombie people with a near-identical shoot-out between the task force and some magical zombie people. Once the protagonists infiltrate their way into the city to rescue Waller, she is captured and they immediately have to rescue her again. The actual climax feels bizarrely generic, either made because no one had a better idea or re-shot because the original idea didn't meet the studio's satisfaction.

Weaved through this by-the-numbers plot is the Joker (Jared Leto), moving in in a predatory fashion to rescue his sidekick and girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) from Waller's clutches. Leto's take on the character is oddly dull. Understandably he has a high bar to overcome, following on from Caesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger, but the truth is he does not even come close. His Joker is simply boring. He isn't scary. He isn't funny. He certainly isn't that magical mixture of the two. He's just a cackling hoodlum with green hair. Not only does he fail to add anything of worth to the film, he actually detracts from the rest of it with his presence.

There are also just too many characters. Cameos from Batman aside, there is an entirely new range of people for the audience to see, learn about and come to understand. Amanda Waller. The Enchantress. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). Harley Quinn. The Joker. Deadshot (Will Smith). El Diablo (Jay Hernandez). Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney). Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Katana (Karen Fukuhara). Slipknot (Adam Beach). That number of character introductions is possible: take The Dirty Dozen as an example (and that is a film to which Warners and Ayer should have paid a lot more attention). Here it is only partially successful. Some of the characters get plenty of screen time and depth. Others get simple stereotypical backgrounds. A few get so little they're effectively wasted, notably Katana who sticks out like a character strolling in from someone else's movie.

Given the material, the cast generally do excellent jobs. In fact they're good enough that I find myself quite looking forward to a Suicide Squad 2 in the hope that they get to do it all again with a proper screenplay. Will Smith is an engaging lead. Viola Davis makes for an exceptional Waller. Margot Robbie does the best she can with Harley Quinn, but it is a critically compromised character and the screenplay avoids any chance to show her develop, grow, or become an independent woman beyond the Joker's abuse. One only hopes they can fix that in the inevitable sequel (despite terrible reviews the film has been a significant commercial hit).

For this DC fan there were just enough beats and moments to keep me happy for two hours, despite the film's numerous flaws. From Man of Steel through Batman v Superman to this I do feel Warner Bros are getting closer to achieving an entertaining multi-character franchise. I just wished they'd worked it out in advance rather than on the screen, one faulty film at a time. Hopefully by Wonder Woman next year they will have reached something resembling genuine quality.

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