David Ayer film

SUICIDE SQUAD Review: Three Cheers for Incompetence!

Monday, August 08, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Failure is supposed to be instructive, so the person or people who failed can learn from their mistakes and not make them again. The bright side here is that the people behind Suicide Squad, the latest DC Comics universe film, will learn so much. After all, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Suicide Squad is a titanic disaster. This tale of the worst of the worst superpowered villains in the DC universe being forced to perform black ops “suicide” missions for the U.S. government doesn’t know what it wants to be. Its writer-director, David Ayer, does not display any aptitude for building compelling characters or shooting coherent set pieces. Is it a goofy friendship comedy? Kind of, but it isn’t funny. Is it a brooding treatise on guilt and the desire for redemption? It wants to be, but it abandons that message for tacked-on jokes and dialogue that would be laughed out of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers writers’ room. Is it a straightforward action flick with transporting fight sequences and evocative images? Not in the least.

The trouble starts right off the bat, with two introductory scenes that involve Deadshot (Will Smith, the ensemble’s most valuable player, although that isn’t saying much) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, whose accent goes from a Betty Boop impression to a valley girl to a tranquilized newscaster depending on the scene) dealing with the mean guards at their hidden Louisiana prison for supervillains. Beginning a trend that follows for the rest of the movie, Ayer floods the soundtrack with on-the-nose pop and rock hits, like Grace’s “You Don’t Own Me,” which serve as shortcuts for character building that the rest of the script is too ambivalent to do itself -- also featured are hacky uses of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” among plenty of other songs you’ve heard 8,000 times. Guards, led by a cameoing Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project), punch Deadshot in the gut and gawk at the hardly clothed Harley while explaining how she’s also crazy -- because her screaming, clown makeup, and slamming her head against the bars of her cell apparently don’t show that enough.

Ayer cuts to a meeting between Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and some higher-ups in the federal government in which Waller explains the plan she has to build a super team of bad guys who they can force to use against existential threats to the planet. She then, um, introduces Deadshot and Harley Quinn via exposition and onscreen graphics. She keeps talking about other members of her proposed super team for an interminable amount of time. A few scenes after that, Deadshot gets another introduction in which he shows off his marksmanship skills -- he “never misses” a shot, which makes him one of the world’s most highly sought assassins -- after the second introduction scene showed how good he was at using guns.

The complete lack of efficiency in how these characters enter the film causes it to lurch forward without momentum. It’s one step forward, eight steps back as Ayer absentmindedly says, “Oh right, and another thing,” like the worst barfly story you’ve ever heard. It happens again when Ayer literally replays the film’s inciting incident -- a young archaeologist (Cara Delevingne) who is possessed by a witch named the Enchantress escapes from her boyfriend/handler, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnamen), who is setting a bomb in a subway for some reason -- as Flag explains to the rest of the Suicide Squad why they’re fighting the Enchantress. This is 20 minutes before the end of the movie. Again, most of this scene was already shown, but it was never explained to the other characters, so Ayer wastes whatever momentum he built in the lead-up to the climax by pausing to remind whatever members of the audience that perhaps took a nap earlier of what is going on. It is insulting to anyone who is able to pay attention to something for a couple hours.

But that’s just the story’s inept structure.

Where Suicide Squad really goes off the rails is in its characterization. Harley Quinn is the film’s co-lead along with Deadshot. The movie hates her. A former psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, the mental institution that held the Joker (Jared Leto), Harley is a person who is only known for two things: her body and how crazy she is. We are told in voiceover how she fell in love with the Joker while serving as his doctor, but there is nothing in the script or Leto’s performance to suggest a reason why she might have fallen for the guy. The “example” of him winning her over is him demanding that she bring him a machine gun. He doesn’t crack a joke to make her laugh -- odd for the Joker, a character known for nearly 80 years as being a gleeful (but insane) trickster -- or say anything remotely charming. He doesn’t cast a spell. He just says he wants something and she gives it to him because the movie doesn’t give her any credit as a thinking human being who, again, is a psychiatric professional. And when she frees him, his first act is to torture her with electroshock therapy. The best possible interpretation of this is that she is “damaged,” much like the tattoo scrawled across the horribly designed Joker’s forehead. Victimhood without agency is not compelling. Even if you were to remove the despicable politics of this relationship, it is an example of poor storytelling because it doesn’t explain why the would-be protagonist does the things she does. It’s no wonder Robbie can’t get a handle on what the character is supposed to do from scene to scene.

The Joker, and Leto’s take on the character, is among the worst things the superhero subgenre has given to the world of cinema. As mentioned above, he doesn’t do anything funny. Even in the sometimes bleak The Dark Knight, the Joker (played by Heath Ledger then), still dressed up like a nurse, got comically cranky when his bomb detonator wouldn’t work, and performed a great “magic trick.” Leto’s character is purely a sociopath in abysmal makeup and the worst costume design -- Ayer’s aesthetic for the film is “Insane Clown Posse meets Red Bull meets Hot Topic.” He’s sadistic without being joyful about it. His voice is oddly Southern, which is at least a new wrinkle to the character, but his gruff drawl makes him sound like Foghorn Leghorn lost his mind and got really into Nazi torture techniques (everything would be forgiven if he had said, “I say, I say, heil Hitler!”). He’s the worst.

The movie constantly reminds the audience how “bad” these characters are, when most of them are merely compromised and tragic. The closest any of them gets to a real human moment of regret is El Diablo (Jay Hernandez, tattooed like the world’s most stereotypical Los Angeles gang member), who can shoot flames out of himself. As he describes the terrible act that put him in prison, Ayer cuts to Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), who quips to Harley that she looks great on the outside, “but on the inside,” he points for forced meaning, she’s bad. Thanks, Boomerang. Really insightful, especially after Harley and Deadshot have reminded everyone that they’re “the bad guys.”

If all that wasn’t bad enough, Ayer’s action direction can’t even shake something worthwhile out of the hateful pus-filled abscess that is Suicide Squad. Hand-to-hand combat sequences are lit too darkly for anything coherent to come across on the screen -- I didn’t even see it in 3D, so I pity the folks who saw it with glasses that darken the screen even more. During the march toward the climactic battle, Ayer takes a page out of third-person shooter video games, Ayer follows Deadshot as he mows down a bunch of blandly designed minions -- they look like oily gourds up close, but from afar they’re basically just anonymous guys in black masks -- with his signature precise aim. By adhering to that video game look, Ayer is unwilling to pull back to show the full scale of the devastation Deadshot is raining down on the bad(der) guys. The medium shot used for the sequence makes it look chaotic when what Ayer’s aiming for is awe at Deadshot’s abilities -- he doesn’t achieve it. The grand finale is a bunch of fire and CGI beams of energy pushing against each other unimaginatively. Even the action sequence in the epilogue is treated like a big, shocking reveal although the name of the character who is supposed to be a shock is printed right on the character’s chest.

Suicide Squad represents some of the ugliest and clumsiest Hollywood filmmaking of the decade. It thinks its audience is too stupid to pay attention. It is too lazy to create a background for its lead character. It looks, sounds, and probably smells like a landfill on the hottest day of the year. It is a bleak, painful, and humorless (especially when it tries to be humor-full, if that’s a word) experience that teaches nobody anything.

Suicide Squad
Director: David Ayer
Writer: David Ayer
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jared Leto
Rating: One star out of five

Available in theaters now

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