Saturday, August 27, 2016

Suicide Squad / **½ (PG-13)

Deadshot: Will Smith
Harley Quinn: Margot Robbie
Boomerang: Jai Courtney
Rick Flagg: Joel Kinneman
June Moone/Enchantress: Cara Delevinge
El Diablo: Jay Hernandez
Katana: Karen Fukuhara
Killer Croc: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Amanda Waller: Viola Davis
The Joker: Jared Leto

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film written and directed by David Ayer. Based on the comic book created by John Ostrander and characters created by Ostrander, Bill Finger and Ross Andru. Running time: 123 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language).

DC Comics and Warner Bros. have finally brought the comic book battle to the cinemas, once again facing off against their arch nemesis Marvel. It took DC a long time to get their act together. While they were doing that Marvel wrote the book on a cinematic superhero universe. DC is playing catch up. They’ve already taken a good deal of flak for their first two entries “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”. The third, “Sucide Squad”, has likewise been a critical disaster, but not a box office one. It’s probably important to remember that the first two didn’t exactly slack at the box office either.

None of this really matters. The only thing that really matters is that Marvel took their time building their universe and DC wants to be where Marvel is right now. Marvel put out five films before they threw their heroes together in a team. DC put out 2, and one of those is pretty much a team up between three heroes, only one of which had a previous movie in this particular superhero universe. A total of three villains were introduced in those two movies, and now we get a superhero team made up of villains known as the Suicide Squad. They get their own movie, and we’ve never met any of them before. Batman makes an appearance, and a new version of the madman villain The Joker, with whom audiences are basically familiar from other films unrelated to this universe. But, neither of these previously revealed characters have anything to do with the Suicide Squad itself. What I’m taking a great deal of time to get at here—but DC has not—is that in the movie “Suicide Squad” we’ve got two hours to familiarize ourselves with nine new major characters and give them an engaging plot to survive, which just isn’t enough time.

I know. I know. This is a popular movie. People “loved” it. It’s a popular comic book. That doesn’t, however, make it good. I would say that the “Suicide Squad” movie is about as good as it could possibly be considering the circumstances with which Warner Bros. brought it about. The comic book on the other hand didn’t debut until most of its characters had been around for decades as arch villains to the world’s most popular superheroes. And, it was never a really a popular comic book until some writer had the brilliant idea of incorporating The Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn into the group, a character that wasn’t even originally created for the comic books, but rather made her first appearance in the “Batman: The Animated Series” cartoon. “Suicide Squad” is a movie perfect to be placed deep into the cinematic universe, not movie number three. By placing it in the third movie spot, Warner Bros. really set itself up for an artistic failure, if not a box office one. They got lucky on the later dice roll there.

So, we spend the first few minutes of the movie setting up the premise of this anti-superhero team in a briefing with Amanda Waller, a government opportunist who summarizes her idea to put a team of super villains together to fight for good, be totally expendable and create plausible deniability for the government should a Superman-type turn up one day as a bad guy. What the movie never really deals with, however, is that the first of this type of superpower their suicide squad is employed to dispense, only comes to power through Waller’s callous and fool-hearty execution of her plan. It’s obvious enough for the audience to realize this is a reflection on Waller’s character that one of her own villainous tools is what becomes such a threat to the world, but shouldn’t that also come back to her at some point in the story where someone—even one of her own team members—says, “but it was your dumbass idea that created this problem.”?

Anyway, although there are nine major characters here—apparently Jared Leto’s Joker role was considerably cut down for the theatrical cut of the film—the plot really focuses mostly on four of those characters, with Waller being a mostly unseen puppet master. Deadshot gets a starring treatment by Will Smith who adds his usual wisecracking to a reluctant hero and fairly sympathetic villain. He’s an assassin who just wants his daughter to grow up with opportunities he never had and no knowledge of how he provides her with that privilege. There wasn’t nearly the backlash that Smith had been cast as a character that has been historically white in previous comic book and television incarnations as there was when Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm in last year’s “Fantastic Four” reboot. That probably has to do with the fact that Smith’s success has softened white audiences’ notion of the fact that he is black, more so even than how perfect he is for the role.

Then there is Harley Quinn, a character that Warner Bros. Pictures is probably just as hopeful to turn into a successful franchise as their subsidiary DC Comics has. Margot Robbie, who has mostly been a pretty face in smart movies until now, does a surprisingly good job with the character. Harley is just as crazy as the Joker—perhaps more so to be his girlfriend—but in her anti-hero status it’s also important to make her charming and intellectually appealing to the audience. Robbie pulls this off better than I think anyone might’ve guessed anybody could.

The two other most important characters would be Rick Flagg, the non-villain military leader of the group, and his girlfriend archaeologist June Moone, who is the human side of Waller’s misguided tool, the evil Enchantress. Flagg seems perpetually angry, which is understandable considering his mission of controlling a team of criminals. He also seems quite ineffectual in almost all of his functions. Enchantress is the element that backfires on Waller and becomes an incredibly powerful threat against Midway City and the world at large.

Among the other players, The Joker is established as a major one who must be sidelined for the entire midsection of the movie so the filmmakers can concentrate on the actual plot. Leto has been criticized for his performance, mostly in lieu of the methods he is rumored to have employed to achieve it. His Joker is clearly off his rocker. That is really all the character requires here, so I was not disappointed with him. I liked the character of El Diablo, a former gangster who refuses to use his power to create fire because of a secret in his past. Katana is a good hero on the team, who has plenty to do if little dialogue. I would’ve liked to know more about her and how she got stuck with a bunch of criminals. Jai Courtney does a good job with what he is given for Captain Boomerang, a thief who uses… you guessed it… to aid him in his crimes. Unfortunately, his relegation mostly to the background seems a waste. And poor Abdewale Akinnouye-Agbaje is lost in his Killer Croc makeup and character design.

Like the movie, I’ve already run long just to cover the character summary. I was shocked to learn that the running time is just over two hours and not longer, because the filmmakers have so much to cover just in character introductions. How did they even fit a plot into that running time? Of course, there really isn’t that much of a plot to worry about. Enchantress tricks Waller into giving her what she needs to break Waller’s control over her. She then sets out to create a mystical machine that will enslave mankind. The Squad is dispatched to reign in one of their own. That’s pretty much it. Subplot: Joker sets out to free Harley.

One detail of many that I felt wasn’t well explained was just what the humans enslaved by Enchantress turn into. They appear to be faceless monsters who are killed off pretty effortlessly by the Suicide Squad without much concern for the humans they once were. I also experienced a great deal of confusion about time and place. There is very little sense of these two elements, which, ironically, are important to the mission. Usually there is some sort of clock involved when it is explained that time is limited.

One thing writer/director David Ayer gets right here is the humor. The first two DC Cinematic Universe films are greatly lacking in the humor department, but there’s quite a deal to be found here despite the dark nature and setting. The film is too dark. The murky lighting makes it difficult to see the action that packs the film from credits to credits and even mutes some of the potentially funny moments that work so well when they can be seen. It’s too bad that DC has chosen to light their films so poorly, since that seemed to be a problem that superhero movies were finally beginning to shake.

I was excited to learn that Ayer had been assigned the helming duties on this movie. His last two movies, “End of Watch” and “Fury”, were excellent. Unfortunately, the nature of this film never really allows Ayer to capitalize on his gift for solid, dark storytelling. There were too many elements to establish for all the necessary detailing of good storytelling to come together. I liked many of the aspects of the film. Perhaps since all the introductions have been done, a sequel could prove more satisfying, but I just can’t get behind this film with a recommendation.

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