Hollywood in 2016 has a real editing problem. Suicide Squad, with its well-documented studio meddling, is the latest in a string of summer tentpole releases that suffers from catastrophic structural, pacing, and assembly choices in the cutting room; choices that sabotage otherwise entertaining performances from lively ensemble casts. Like Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot, video game adaptation Warcraft, and especially DC/Warner Bros. own Batman V Superman before it, Suicide Squad fails its characters with shoddy plotting, incoherent storytelling, and disastrous third-act momentum and construction.
Boasting rich cinematography, a stylish design aesthetic, and a terrific ensemble cast, Suicide Squad is like a shiny, fuel-injected European sports car – there are stretches when the engine thrums and purrs, the ride is smooth and powerful as the wind whips through your hair and the adrenaline surges through your veins, but the thing just isn’t mechanically sound. It’s loose in the turns, it pops pistons, it leaks oil, and every time you shift into high gear to really take off on a long, exhilarating ride, it completely breaks down on the side of the road.
The film’s issues are apparent right from the onset, as we are introduced to Suicide Squad‘s assemblage of ne’er-do-wells, malcontents, and psychopaths via a disjointed series of rapid cuts that must have cost a fortune in music licensing rights alone. Each character gets their own Scott Pilgrim-esque title graphics, complete with “player stats” and the aforementioned accompanying pop/rock/hip-hop tracks, including some eye-rolling obvious choices like The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” for the Skwad’s cunning, manipulative string-puller, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis).
The very notion of making a movie about a team composed of mostly C-list DC Comics villains like Deadshot, El Diablo, and Captain Boomerang without first establishing them for audiences in other superhero films always seemed like a dicey proposition to me, and as feared, the finished product spends a good 45 minutes or more just introducing (and in some cases re-introducing) these malevolent DC characters and getting to know them via choppy flashbacks and exposition dumps from Amanda Waller during a dinner table scene with some high-ranking government muckety-mucks.
It takes light years to actually suss out who the antagonists are, launch the mission, and get any forward-moving progress going, but once it all gets set into motion, it’s enormously disappointing. Fans and critics really like to pile on Marvel for its pantheon of so-called weak and uninteresting villains and their plots that always seem to involve world-ending portals or glowing energy beams stretching up into the sky, but three films into their cinematic universe, WB/DC films are guilty of the exact same perceived transgressions.
After an interesting, Escape From New York-esque setup where the team is dropped into an evacuated, ravaged cityscape, Suicide Squad devolves into a climactic showdown with painfully nondescript CGI-enhanced baddies standing in front of a glowing, swirling green screen hellmouth that shoots energy beams at buildings and, naturally, threatens to engulf the world in darkness and destruction. The whole thing feels like a misguided amalgamation of Loki’s Avengers portal, Gozer the Gozerian’s stream-crossing clash in the original Ghostbusters, and, with these particular ancient evildoers, something out of a Steven Sommers Mummy movie. It’s an unnecessary, shlocky light show in a movie that should have been kept at street-level; a grounded threat that plays to David Ayer’s strengths as a director.
Speaking of Ayer, the guys paints a stylish frame, mixing colors that pop with gritty, grimy environments. There is certainly no denying that Suicide Squad, with its hip-hop meets punk rock meets post-apocalyptic urban terrorscape aesthetic, sets itself apart from most superhero movies on a purely visual level, but action-wise, Ayer can’t infuse anything thrilling or innovative into the proceedings. The majority of the second and third act consists of the team being repeatedly assaulted by faceless CGI cannon fodder who swarm the frame and are sliced, bludgeoned and blown to goopy bits while the team bickers with their military handler, Rick Flagg (a slighly less dull Joel Kinnaman), and plots their escape.
As I mentioned at the top of the review, the one aspect of Suicide Squad that saves the film from being a total catastrophe and makes it at least watchable is the character work, but those brief flashes of light often come from unexpected contributors. Longtime Harley Quinn lovers will likely not be displeased with Margot Robbie’s performance as the loopy girlfriend of The Joker. Though hyper-sexualized (and at one point even “pimped out” by the Joker in a cringe worthy sequence), Robbie nonetheless imbues the character with the requisite amount of bouncy madness, spouting off beloved catchphrases like “My Puddin’!” and “Mistah J!”, and landing well-placed zingers at the expense of her teammates. She even gets to wear the classic Jester’s costume! It’s not a mind-blowing, revelatory performance (her affected Brooklyn accent drifts in and out), but it gets the job done.
Bouncing off of her as the co-lead is “the world’s greatest marksman,” Deadshot, an assassin for hire working primarily out of Batman’s home turf of Gotham City. Will Smith does his usual Will Smith shtick — you know, the “I’m way funnier and more awesome than everyone in the room at all times” thing, and while I normally find that endearing and entertaining, here it felt tedious and a bit off-putting. At times it’s impossible to not laugh at his jokes and feel some of that trademark charm shining through, especially when he’s bouncing off Viola Davis’ stone-faced Waller, but his rapport with the team—primarily his back-and-forth with Kinnaman—doesn’t quite hit the mark (pun intended). What does work a little better is Deadshot’s relationship with his 11-year-old daughter, Zoe. Working his way back into her life and getting her away from her neglectful Mother serves as Deadshot’s primary motivation in the film, and for the most part it’s okay, but with so much other character stuff crammed in the story, and the flawed pacing gumming up the works, it doesn’t fully resonate on an emotional level.
The movie is almost stolen from underneath everyone’s feet by Latino actor Jay Hernandez, playing an ex-gangbanger with fire superpowers recruited to the Squad. What seemed like an inconsequential, “pad out the team with a D-lister who will probably be killed off” role based on the film’s marketing campaign, actually turns out to be a fleshed-out character with an honest-to-goodness arc. Hernandez plays a guy who’s haunted by his abilities and is reluctant to use them due to a horrific accident in his past, but via his interactions with the squad and the stakes of the mission, finds a way to use them and gain salvation through them. However, it’s almost tragic that in order to achieve this redemption, the character is thrown into a needless CGI shitstorm with another poorly realized and rendered CGI baddie.
Filling out the gang is a shockingly funny and dynamic Jai Courtney, who usually plods through his tough guy bro roles with all the charisma of a stop sign. Here he’s allowed to use his natural Australian accent (accurate to the comics version of Captain Boomerang!), and just play an unhinged, degenerate goofball. Unfortunately, the screenplay gives him absolutely nothing interesting or vital to do. LOST and Oz veteran Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is buried under some impressive makeup and prosthetics as Killer Croc, who mostly grunts, throws people around, and occasionally fires off a well-timed one-liner. It’s clear he fills the Groot role on the team as the big enforcer with a gentle heart, but can’t muster up a third of the effortless affability or life of that character. Katana, played by lovely newcomer Karen Fukuhara is a throwaway bodyguard who speaks four or five lines total. Some intriguing things about her are clumsily explained to the audience by Kinnaman, but are never explored or followed up on.
Jared Leto’s Joker is the worst on-screen iteration of the character ever. It’s utterly astonishing how ineffective and just sort of…bland he is. So much was made of his idiosyncrasies on set; the deep method approach he took to the character and the weird, bordering on illegal and harassing “gifts” he gave to his fellow cast members, such as a dead pig and used condoms. But after all that—following all that hype and bluster and the controversial visual makeover with the silver “grill,” tats, purple alligator skin trench coat, and endless Juggalo/Hot Topic comparisons—he just doesn’t leave much an impression at all, and really has no business even being in the film. Edgy “DC bros” will no doubt immediately fall in love with this thugged-out, meth tweaker, gangster version of the Clown Prince Of Crime, but Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and even Cesar Romero have nothing to fear from this dud of a performance.
In the end, Suicide Squad is just another DC movie that simply doesn’t work. Its handful of strong characters can’t save it from the massive cracks in its structure, baffling editing decisions, and a lackluster final conflict with dull villains in a sea of CGI vomit. The movie spends far too much time reminding the audience that “hey, these are the bad guys!”, and assaulting the senses with endless, tedious gun battles and irritating songs blasting at eleven. And despite finally introducing a much-needed shot of humor into the universe (to mixed results), everything still feels deathly and ponderously serious. Hopefully the double shot of the Wonder Woman film,which looks very promising, and the stewardship of the entire franchise handed over to Geoff Johns can right this ship, because that last sliver of light is about to be permanently eclipsed by a black nothingness.