Anticipation was high when the first trailer for Suicide Squad (2016) debuted. The playful, irreverent tone came as a welcome relief from the dark, somber tone of previous DC Extended Universe movies, Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Perhaps DC was going to go for the same kind of colorful, anarchic vibe of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)?
Based on the comic book of the same name, Suicide Squad features a team of supervillains sent on seemingly impossible mission a la The Dirty Dozen (1967). Much like with the aforementioned Guardians, DC took a gamble on an independent filmmaker with no blockbuster experience. David Ayer is known mostly for writing and directing gritty police procedurals with morally dubious protagonist in films like Harsh Times (2005), Street Kings (2008), and End of Watch (2012). He was an intriguing choice to write and direct a comic book movie to say the least.
Shortly before Suicide Squad was released, industry gossip reported a troubled production that was rushed with post-production tinkering by studio executives unhappy with Ayer’s cut. The movie was released to very strong box office results and predominantly negative reviews. Its passionate supporters felt that there was a critical bias against the movie and that the leaked production woes were an attempt to sabotage it right out of the gate. That being said, if the end result is a quality product all of this industry chatter is ultimately irrelevant.
Right from the get-go, the editing feels disjointed as we are briefly introduced to two Suicide Squad members – Deadshot (Will Smith), a top notch marksman and assassin, and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), an ex-psychiatrist now complete homicidal looney tune courtesy of the Joker (Jared Leto) – and then go right into setting up the movie’s premise without introducing the others or giving any kind of context. And then, just as government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) begins to establish the premise we are introduced to Deadshot and Harley Quinn again. Only this time giving them some backstory.
It is here that the movie Ayer wanted to make leaks through as we get a deliciously gonzo moment where Harley helps the Joker escape from Arkham Asylum with armed henchmen dressed as a goat, a panda bear and other things. The extended vignette depicting their toxic relationship has a wonderfully unpredictable vibe to it that is over too soon.
From there, we are finally introduced to the rest of the motley crew – Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a master thief whose weapon of choice are very lethal boomerangs, El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), an ex-gang banger with the ability to summon fire powers, and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a monstrous cross between a human and a crocodile who is also a cannibal. Waller’s plan is to send these baddies out in the world if the next Superman-type being turns out to be a terrorist, but instead are ordered to stop one of their own – the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), a former archaeologist now possessed by a very old, very powerful witch that wants to destroy the world with the help of her recently resurrected brother who has also inhabited a body and is rapidly consuming others to become a powerful supernatural entity. Not surprisingly, the wild card thrown into the mix is the Joker who has his own agenda.
For the most part, Suicide Squad cruises by on sheer attitude alone thanks in large part to the charismatic performances of Margot Robbie and Jared Leto who seem to be having the most fun with their larger than life, iconic characters. It’s wonderful to see Will Smith part of an ensemble and exuding the cocky swagger that helped make him king of the box office for several years. It’s just a damn shame that his character is saddled with such a bland backstory that reeks of a movie star demanding that he not play a truly bad guy but someone in search of redemption.
Leto and Robbie bring a new Millennium Sid and Nancy (1986) vibe to their portrayals of the Joker and Harley Quinn that is easily one of the movie’s highlights. Whenever they are on-screen together there is a delightfully unpredictable frisson between them that feels more like a creation between Ayer and his actors rather than some of the more formulaic elements that the movie falls back on. We want to see more of these two together and hopefully their volatile relationship will be explored in more detail in another movie.
Jay Hernandez successfully brings a refreshing dynamic to the group as a tragic figure reluctant to use his superpower because of its devastating effects and how it informs his troubled past. The movie’s secret weapon and scene-stealer is Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang, a smartass Aussie that drinks beer and loves pink unicorns. He’s an under-utilized character actor often relegated to bland roles in movies like A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) and Terminator Genisys (2015), but has finally found his signature role and he goes for it in a way that is oh-so enjoyable to watch.
To be honest there isn’t a bum note in the entire cast, even Joel Kinnaman who has the misfortune of playing Colonel Rick Flag, the straight man to these colorful characters, ordered by Waller to babysit them. Technically speaking, if you continue The Dirty Dozen comparisons then Flag has the Lee Marvin role since he’s their handler on the actual mission but early on it feels more like Waller is with her hard-as-nails, no-nonsense disposition as Viola Davis appears to have continued playing her government official from Michael Mann’s little-seen computer hacker film Blackhat (2015). If the filmmakers really wanted to take some chances they should’ve had Waller go along with the Squad on their mission instead of the flavorless Flag so that the always interesting to watch Davis could’ve gotten more screen-time.
There is an interesting dynamic going on in Suicide Squad with Ayer’s patented tough guy dialogue being spouted by comic book characters and naturally much of the enjoyment that comes from watching this movie is derived from these disparate characters bouncing off each other with a delicious amount of friction generated between them because nobody trusts each other. Watching Suicide Squad one can see a really good (possible R rated – at least that’s what the Joker/Harley Quinn scenes feel like) movie trying to get out but the first half is marred by editing by committee and feels disjointed. Fortunately, the second half is much more coherent as the movie settles into the standard comic book formula as the Squad goes after a big bad bent on destroying the world and fighting their way through an army of its flunkies. Far from the trainwreck that most critics would have you believe, Ayer’s movie is a fun, entertaining romp that is, at times, frustratingly at odds with itself.