"Suicide Squad" (2016) - Rated PG-13 / Runtime: 130 minutes
Directed by David Ayer
Review by: JJ Mortimer
A forcefully-derivative, tonally-garbled, over-edited narrative mess, Suicide Squad still manages to be an entertaining comic book movie with a backbone strengthened by great performances by most of the cast, especially from Will Smith and Margot Robbie.
A lot has been said about the behind-the-scenes drama on the making of this film, and a lot of that is apparent on screen. The producer over-involvement, the re-edits, the re-shoots - all of this masks what could have been a really intriguing character study in a comic book backdrop, but unfortunately I got the feeling that David Ayer (a writer and director whose work I follow and gritty, hard-nosed style I admire) had a vision that was probably almost entirely erased from the finished product. I could sense that roughly fifty percent of what we see on screen is to be accounted for his involvement, while the wildly uneven tone and narrative mish-mash is a result of too many cooks in the kitchen. I'd be curious to see in the future if they allow Ayer his own true "director's cut," and I'm sure the film wouldn't be as light-hearted and cobbled together as it is.
Despite this knowledge, one must still judge the final product. What we are left with is an often entertaining motion picture; one that sports good performances by almost he entire cast, including two truly great performances by its two lead stars. Smartly, the film doesn't make this the "Will Smith show" nor does it over indulge in the sole charisma of Margot Robbie's psychotic and comic portrayal of Harley Quinn. Both she and Smith are used sparingly, with each of them and their stories getting more screen time than the other members of the Suicide Squad, yet never quite overtaking whatever over-arching "story" we are left with.
While the first act of the film feels broken up and doesn't quite catch on to an even story-telling flow, I enjoyed the fact that each character was introduced with their own little vignette with a few on-screen "stats" to show how dangerous and kooky each one is. Some of it reminded me of a more substantial version of Hugo Stiglitz's introduction in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds in both style and humorously-broken narrative stride breaker. There are many moments early in this film that truly feel (and look) like a comic book come to life on screen, at least more so than any of the other DC-produced comic book adaptations in the past decade.
As the squad is assembled and the film gets underway, this is where the film for me started to feel a little incomplete and less it's own movie. Suicide Squad somewhere along the line became an extremely derivative comic book movie that was cut together as a result of the more successful Marvel movies before it. I wouldn't go so light as to say I think this is what happened - I'm almost certainly positive that the tonal changes and narrative structure (as well as the entertaining yet oh-so-obvious use of continuous and numerous popular songs) are a result of the successes of both Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool. "It worked for Marvel, so goddamit we're going to make it work for us, too!"
DAVID AYER: "But wait, I directed Suicide Squad as a dark, dreary, film that stars very, very bad villains as our anti-heroes in ravished, destroyed cities covered in the dark of night like Gotham City - how are we going to make this a colorful, playful, fun movie like the ones that Marvel produces?"
PRODUCER: "Fuck it. We have four editors. We will think of something after this line of coke and turn Pandora to the Joan Jett station and get inspired. What's Gotham City?"
It's clear as day that DC needs to make their own inspired movies. They are the harbingers of darkness and grit while Marvel has been the more colorful, family-friendly of the comic book movie genre. DC either needs to embrace what they've established with the Christopher Nolan universe, or they need to stop hiring directors like David Ayer who are known for their "grit" if they don't intend on keeping their movies in the tone they've already established. You can have comedy in your darker, more violent films about villains playing the heroes, but you can't create that only in the editing room. That's a choice that needs to be made in the script form in order for a coherent motion picture to be produced.
So that's my umbrella of thought on the film, yet doesn't account for some of the tinier details that I either liked or disliked in the film. I will mention a few of those before giving my final resolve:
- Why does every comic book movie villain have to produce some sort of giant blue light shooting into the sky? Why is this a thing? I feel like this is the seventh comic book movie in a row that this has happened.
- This movie needed a grounded, more realistic villain for the more grounded, realistic "heroes" to quarrel with. Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash - they are the more mystical heroes (or as this film calls "meta-humans") that can combat a teleporting, energy-blast shooting super-villain. I'm not quite sure how getting a clown girl with a sledgehammer and an Australian guy who throws a boomerang is the appropriate response to such a threat.
- Including Batman as a background character in a few flashback scenes was a nice touch, and made the film feel welcome in the universe DC is trying desperately to create, though at times it made me really cherish the thought of a Deadshot vs. Batman movie just to see the conflicted Will Smith character square off with Ben Affleck's version of a disgruntled Caped Crusader.
- I was surprised at how well the film actually worked on a PG-13 level. Even though a different version of this film could have lent itself to a more gritty R-version, what we are left with never once came across as a watered-down version of a film. It worked just fine in the context of its content.
- I despised the fact that all this buildup was made for how frightening and scary Killer Croc was, yet he is completely wasted and never given an opportunity to do anything of substance other than throw a bomb a far distance for Deadshot to fire at.
- So much of the movie feels like a chopped-up mess, at times characters going from one scene to the next without giving the audience any idea of how, why, or what they're doing there.
- Ironically, it felt like the film rushed too quickly forward in order to get to the slowest scene in the film, which also happened to be the best scene overall. Allowing the "heroes" time to establish themselves as individuals and as a team while all sitting around having a drink is a great way to unify them and make the audience see that they have some bit of heart underneath their murderous ways. El Diablo, the only "meta-human" in the group, is given the best moment to shine here.
- This may be the first time I've actually liked Jai Courtney in a role, especially considering he isn't playing a wooden retread of a straight-to-video B-movie action hero. He actually plays quirky and crazy quite well, and should use his Australian accent waaaaay more often than trying to fake an American one.
Finally, I want to mention the Joker. I didn't mind Jared Leto's performance as the Clown Prince of Darkness, but any comparison to the late, great Heath Ledger, while understandable, is completely unwarranted. Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight is not only the best Joker performance, but arguably one of the best performances in film history. But, his version would not have worked in Suicide Squad. Ledger's Joker would never have had the inclination for a girlfriend to bog down his plans of anarchy. Leto's posh performance lends to a quirkier mentality, all while maintaining the Joker's known socio-and-psychopathic tendencies that actually allowed for a hint of vulnerability when it came to Harley Quinn. The Joker from The Dark Knight would have just rammed a tube of lipstick through her eye.
That being said, the filmmakers of Suicide Squad needed to either shit or get off the pot with what they were planning to do with the Joker in this film. They seemed unsure, keeping one foot in the door and one foot out with what his importance or purpose would be in the film. While in the final product he is very, very loosely tied to narrative of Harley Quinn, he did NOT need to be in the actual story for the film. I had no problem with the Joker being a big part of the flashback scenes for Harley Quinn, for instance, but had the filmmakers been smarter, they would have written his scenes completely out from the major plot line and relegated him to only the flashback scenes. Therefore, at the very end, you could maybe have the Joker pop up and it be an actual SURPRISE when he breaks Harley Quinn out of prison, and perhaps set up a future Batman film in the process. Instead, with all the editing and re-cutting done on the film, the Joker ends up having no purpose or reason to be in the final story line. The Joker's scenes with Harley Quinn, as well as Deadshot's scenes, needed to be part of a more streamlined narrative, and not shoddily thrown in as flashback scenes. They were the more intriguing aspects of the film, and unfortunately we were given too little time to be entertained by them.
Part of me looks at a film like Suicide Squad like a living entity. I feel like I can't be mad at the film itself for doing something stupid, instead focusing my disheartened distaste toward the people guiding it down the path of destruction like a child with bad parenting. Suicide Squad is a product of its environment - picture a grandfather who beats the shit out of his son because his granddaughter isn't as funny, lovable, or hot as the other kid in the daycare getting all the attention from the caretakers, and then decides to kidnap the child, bring it back to the retirement home, and let four other shuffleboard athletes raise it to be a strange, derivative psychopath all its own.
It's difficult for me to recommend this film to comic book fans and auteurs of film making. I will say that if you like mindless action against weak supernatural enemies that die after a little girl with too much makeup punches them in the face for some reason, you may enjoy it. The movie actually is quite entertaining with awesome moments, some great visuals, and an energy to it that makes you crave for more, but the film can also be often frustrating because you might get the feeling that a much better film is hiding underneath the frosting. And I actually look forward to either a sequel to this film, or see how the characters are used in follow-up films such as the in-production Justice League adventure.
Suicide Squad for me was like melted ice cream - the product still tastes sugary and sweet, but it's always best when it's solid in the original form it was advertised.
If I was to judge the film for what it could have been, the rating recommendation would have been lower. But judged by the moments and my overall being-entertained-by-the-movie-ness for what it actually was, I cut it a little more slack than the fanboys are giving it.