Originally released 5 Aug 2016
Written and directed by David Ayer
Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, Jay Hernandez, Jai Courtney, Adawale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Cara Delevingne
My rating: ★★ ★1/2 stars
Not the epic disaster I expected, for what that’s worth.
Suicide Squad plays like a giant compromise, as if the filmmakers started with an idea that they had to alter bit by bit in order to appease various interested parties. Perhaps, without these compromises, a good movie might have resulted. Perhaps. We’ll never know. What we’re left with is unsatisfying and compromised.
The premise of the film is that U.S. government worker (what agency she represents is not mentioned) Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) proposes gathering together a band of villains to confront the growing threat of superpowered villains, or metahumans, as they’re called in the movie. She poses the question, “What if Superman had decided to fly down, rip off the roof of the White House, grab the president right out of the oval office? Who would’ve stopped him?” (The movie came out in August 2016. Watching the movie now, I couldn’t help but think that more than half of the country would consider that the action of a superhero, not a supervillain, and would cheer Superman on.)
Waller’s answer is to create a band of the worst villains imaginable to combat extraordinary threats—a kind of comic book Dirty Dozen. Surprisingly and unfortunately, the film doesn’t explicitly state or dwell upon the reasoning behind using villains for these missions—the fact that they are expendable, an essential point in the classic film The Dirty Dozen, one my personal favorite action films. The film does use the plot device of having the members of the team implanted with gadgets that will blow their heads off if they don’t follow orders or try to escape, but, in the film, it’s just a device, and its meaning and implications are never examined.
Not much is examined in the film. It’s all surface and little substance. Writer/director David Ayer reflected, “I have to give the characters the stories and plots they deserve next time. Real talk.” The characters do get one scene of real talk before the climax, but it’s too little too late.
One character given some depth is Deadshot (Will Smith), an expert marksman and the world’s deadliest assassin. Before I go on, I should say that I have no inside knowledge to back up my suspicions. Based on what I saw on the screen, I think that, in order to get Will Smith on board, the script was rewritten to beef up the character of Deadshot at the expense of the other characters and to make him more like the action heroes played by Will Smith in the past—in this case, more of an action antihero. I can envision the negotiations where Smith’s people requested highlighting Deadshot’s relationship with his daughter and adding the element that Deadshot refuses to kill women and children. And Will Smith in his performance never once brings out the dark side of Deadshot. I never bought that he was, as good-guy-group-leader-charged-with-keeping-the-miscreants-in-line Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) says, “A serial killer who takes credit cards.”
Rick Flag’s role in the film is doubly compromised. With Deadshot effectively becoming group leader, Rick Flag doesn’t have much to do. Furthermore, the role is miscast. Swedish star Joel Kinnaman is a good actor, and, in the scenes that require acting, he does the best job of anyone in the film. But the performance as a whole doesn’t work because Kinnaman doesn’t have the presence for a movie this size. Give him a meaty role in a chamber drama, and I’m sure he’ll do a great job. But he makes very little impression here. Tom Hardy originally had the role but had to drop out due to his commitments to The Revenant. I imagine, based on what I’ve seen of Hardy’s work, that he might have been better suited to this kind of movie.
The other character given significant attention is Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the Joker’s (Jared Leto) unhinged girlfriend. Harley Quinn is never developed outside of that relationship. I cringe at describing a woman in terms of a man (e.g. Amal Clooney is “an international human rights lawyer,” not “George Clooney’s wife”), even a female character in terms of her relationship to a male character. But, in this case, the description and development is enough. The psychotic relationship between Harley and the Joker is the necessary defining element of the character. Her addiction to him is her raison d’etre. And that’s the problem, and the movie knows it. The film is smart enough, at least, to present the relationship as completely destructive, not just for outsiders, but for Harley and, possibly, the Joker, too.
Robbie gives a strong performance. But—there’s always a “but” with this movie—her character plays like the product of a compromise. The evil threat in the film is massive, and Harley’s talents don’t seem suited to tackling that threat. From what the movie shows, she has some impressive hand-to-hand combat moves and hits things with a baseball bat but brings no special ability to the group. Her entire purpose appears to be to the token female member of the Suicide Squad. Despite her villainous (villainess?) nature, she is a popular character among female comic book fans, and a major female presence is a must for tentpole movies nowadays. But, the film still has to consider male viewers, so Harley spends most of the movie in hot pants. (I felt sorry for Robbie who probably had to work for months with a permanent wedgie.)
A less significant problem for the character is the casting of an actress far too young. Harley’s backstory shows her to be a psychiatrist treating the Joker who falls in love with him. Margot Robbie turned 25 during the making of this movie. Even if Robbie looks a few years older, in no way does she appear old enough to be a psychiatrist trusted with treating the Joker. An actress in her mid-30s would have been more appropriate. The film has a similar problem with the character of Dr. June Moon (Cara Delevingne), an archaeologist. Delevingne was 23 while making the film. Again, an actress ten years older would have made much more sense from a character standpoint—if not a marketing one.
Since the film was released, we’ve learned that many scenes featuring the Jared Leto’s Joker were truncated or left on the cutting room floor entirely. Many viewers were disappointed at the lack of screen time the Joker had. I found his level of screen time appropriate to his role in the film, but I didn’t see the presence of the Joker as a major reason to watch the film. Leto had the Herculean task of taking over a character who was indelibly played by one of the greatest screen actors of all time (Jack Nicholson) but then was successfully reinterpreted (itself a huge accomplishment) in an Oscar-winning swansong performance (Heath Ledger). (Not to mention Cesar Romero’s and Mark Hamill’s memorable versions of the role.)
Wisely, the filmmakers chose to make the character look entirely different from any iteration of the Joker who has come before, and Leto choses to play him entirely differently from the other actors. Leto has only minimal success in his interpretation. His emphasis is on the character’s affectations and lunacy, which leads to an almost painfully over-the-top performance, but the performance works at those moments when the character is the most conflicted, when the person breaks through the affectations, and I’m not sure those moments would work without the completely psychotic norm for contrast. Leto took a lot of risks with this performance, and, if it didn’t entirely work, the venture is still to be applauded.
The supporting characters have varying levels of success. Jay Hernandez’s Diablo has the most interesting arc of the film. He gets three really good scenes. I would have liked to have seen more of him. However, I could have lived without Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang. What does he even offer to the squad? He throws boomerangs. Amanda Waller couldn’t have found someone who had a better ability? How can he in any way contend with the godlike abilities of the villains? Killer Croc (Adawale Akinnuoye-Agbaje—who is still and will always be Simon Adebisi (Oz) in my mind), a cannibal with a skin condition that leaves him resembling a crocodile, performs an essential service to the team, at least, even if he only has eight lines of dialogue. I get the feeling that these roles were trimmed in beefing up Smith’s Deadshot.
I watched this film after it won the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling and people on social media began complaining that a movie this awful shouldn’t have won an Oscar, regardless of the technical achievement, or that its makeup work was inferior to that of fellow nominee Star Trek Beyond. Yes, Suicide Squad’s makeup work is less elaborate than that in Star Trek Beyond, but that isn’t the same thing as being inferior. The two films have different makeup needs. Star Trek Beyond creates elaborate designs for various alien species while Suicide Squad’s make-up is used to characterize largely human characters. So, in part, the relative success of the makeup in the films is hard to assess. But the make-up in Suicide Squad is Oscar-worthy. The most elaborate makeup is on Killer Croc, and the make-up doesn’t prevent Akinnuoye-Agbaje from making subtle facial gestures. (I couldn’t help but notice how his right nostril twitched just like Adebisi’s.)
But the character defining make-up design for Harley Quinn, the Joker, Diablo, and Captain Boomerang is, in many ways, more impressive. It looks ugly, and, despite what Vulture seems to think, that’s a good thing. This is a movie about the dregs of the world, and they look like they were dredged up from a pit somewhere. If I have one complaint about the make-up, it’s the over-reliance on tattoos to define the Joker and Diablo. More variation would have shown more creativity, but, as it is, all the characters look as if they inhabit the same universe.
A surprising disappointment in the film is Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. Davis is a great actress, and she is a very good match for the role. The problem is that she forgot to have fun; she spends the whole movie looking like someone resigned to certain death. I enjoyed Pam Grier’s performance as Waller on TV’s Smallville much more because she plays her with relish and flair. Davis is just a downer.
The most surprising thing about the film is that it’s not that bad. It’s not good by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s not earth-shatteringly terrible, which is what reading about the film had led me to believe. I don’t like comic book movies, so I expected to hate this movie with the violence of a thousand suns. I didn’t. I didn’t like it. But enough works in the film for me to give two stars.
I have to shave a half star off for the movie’s grievous sin of featuring the most overused bits of dialogue in narratives today. It’s hard to watch find movie or TV episode these days that doesn’t feature “I (or we, you, she’s, he’s) got this” or “let’s do this.” In Suicide Squad, I counted not just two instances of “I got this,” but a “we got this” and a “let’s do this” within three minutes of each other. I will replace the half star if Deadshot shoots the writer in the head.