Sunday 21 August 2016

REVIEW: Suicide Squad

Somewhere in Suicide Squad, there's a really decent film. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, with too many characters to incorporate and too many creative influences trying to make their mark. The concept of the comicbook original Suicide Squad - a group of untrustworthy, heinous and powerful characters on top-secret missions - is certainly a fine basis for a movie. Initial information on the film described it as a superhero version of The Dirty Dozen, which would indeed make for a fantastic popcorn flick. Suicide Squad, however, never quite lives up to its premise, in spite of a highly enjoyable first half.

The first two acts are not without their flaws, but they are at least aware of the ridiculousness of the set-up. There's a real verve to the introduction of the first group of characters, and while the frenetic editing and barrage of pop music is distracting, there's a lot of fun to be had as the principal cast are introduced. No doubt about it, this is an impressive cast, and for the most part the best (or, more realistically, most expensive) are introduced first. The premise is outlined efficiently, building on the previous instalments of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman to create a believable, if fantastic, situation. With Superman gone, and a history of costumed and superpowered villains, it's perfectly feasible that someone such as Amanda Waller would worry about "the next Superman" and make plans for how to deal with such threats. We know it's bound to go wrong, but that's the fun of set-up.

While much of the film is over-the-top fun, it suffers greatly from an uneven tone and misjudgements in managing the large cast of characters. While it's certainly possible to manage a huge group of super-characters effectively - Civil War showed us that - it's no easy task. After the first batch of characters, including Waller, Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Killer Croc and Enchantress, are introduced, we get the next bunch, with El Diablo, Captain Boomerang and Slipknot added to the team. Rick Flagg is included in order to try to control the band of misfits. Then he brings in Katana as his own personal muscle. And then there's the rest of Waller's committee. And the Joker. And the big bad of the film itself. Not to mention all his troops...

It's all rather too much, too hurriedly. There's an adage that an audience can only accept so many oddities at once. It's easy enough to accept a crackshot assassin and clown who dresses as a criminal, but we're also expected to accept a cannibal with reptilian skin and a demonic witch possessing a young woman. If you're a comics fan like me, it's fine, but even given the last twenty years of superhero flicks, there's only so much an audience member can be prepared to swallow all at once. As I said, though, the earlier part of the film revels in the silliness. Later on, though, it takes on a more serious, moralistic tone that sits uneasily with the first half of the film and the characters' background. The structure of the story is, ultimately, a mess. It would have been far more effective to start out with the team in place, learning about the characters from their interactions and actually seeing them taking on missions that the military can't be seen to do. Instead, we get one mission, going straight into the main event after spending the better part of an hour on introductions and set-up, with Flagg and his army boys along for support. It's exactly what the Squad was not set up to do.

While I'm pleased that the creators of superhero films no longer feel bound to give us long-winded origin stories, the approach taken here falls between too stools. What we do see of the more interesting characters makes me want to see more, and holds back the narrative at the same time. Deadshot, along with Harley, is one of the two main protagonists of the film. The most sympathetic of the Squad, Deadshot gets significant backstory that is more interesting than what he gets to do as part of the team. Will Smith is as good as ever, even if he is playing a more amoral version of his default movie character. Perhaps the most impressive of the cast is Jay Hernandez as El Diablo, a reformed monster who has to be broken away from his new pacifist stance. As good as he is, he's stuck with some of the worst, most cliched dialogue in the film. It's impressive that he can make such a load of tosh as compelling as he does. On the other hand, Katana, played by Karen Fukuhara, is entirely pointless to the story, in spite of a fascinating backstory, while Akinnuoye-Agbaje is utterly wasted as Killer Croc.

The biggest missed opportunity is Harley Quinn's relationship with the Joker. These aren't my Harley nor my Joker; I grew up on the Tim Burton films and the classic 90s animated series. These two fruitloops represent a more modern, utterly unhinged take on the characters, and in that they succeed completely. Jared Leto is magnetic and disturbing in his turn as this tattooed, steel-toothed supervillain; the only weakness is that we are desperate to see more of him. Margot Robbie absolutely nails it as Harley. Both vulnerable and formidable, she uses her sexuality as another weapon and sells her complete obsession with the Joker, someone whose love she'll never truly have. While we don't need an origin story for every character, Harley Quinn is one who deserves one.

Instead, we have interminable scenes of Cara Delevingne trying very hard, but failing, to portray a 6000-year-old interdimensional sorceress by speaking through a voice modulator and dancing about a bit, while the ultimate villain of the piece is a faceless monster that most people will have forgotten about by the time they leave the cinema. The final act sees the movie lose all coherence as it attempts to make this band of bastards into heroes, losing any of the good will the previous hour-and-a-half managed to gain in a barrage of pyrotechnics. Sit back, let it all wash over you and you'll have fun... but you'll leave wanting to see more of Harley and her puddin.'

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