Directed by David Ayer
Starring Viola Davis, Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Joel Kinnaman, Karen Fukuhar & Cara Delevingne
Film Review by Jack Bottomley
There comes a time in every reviewers life when they will go against the general consensus, in the most extreme way. For the late great Roger Ebert, that happened many times, a relevant example in this case would be his 4/4 praising of the film Spawn (1997), a maligned dark antihero film, adapted from the Image Comics character, that has actually gone on to enjoy a cult following. Point is, I am no Ebert but whether you write for the big wigs, the small publications or, achieve the accolade of being a part of house UK Film Review - Lannister ain’t got nothing on us - you will come across a film, or many films that you read one way and seemingly everyone else reads another. And in this longer than usual review, a reviessay if you will, I want to give an insight into my readings of this fascinating, flawed, frenzied, fragmented and fabulous viewing experience.
After Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Man of Steel (2013), it would be fair to say that the DC Cinematic Universe has certainly had a rough start. Zack Snyder’s aforementioned films were to be a platform for what is to come, and have been but their responses have been far less than satisfactory for the comic book company that birthed the Batman, flaunted Flash and showcased Superman. Man of Steel had a fantastic hype behind it, with even non-Superman fans salivating at the visually engaging and epically scaled trailers and it was thought that DC Comics would literally be able to hit the ground running with their own Cinematic Universe after some false starts (Batman aside, as in my opinion, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy is a magnum opus of this genre), alongside their biggest competitor Marvel - who by this point were in full swing of Phase 2 of their own universe, with Iron Man 3 in cinemas at that stage (the quality of that particular offering is another story).
Long story short, Man of Steel was far from a clunker but was met with very mixed responses and was the source of feverish debates, with the moralistic aspect of Henry Cavill’s version of Krypton’s favourite son being brought into question. Still the box office and enthusiasm kept the ball rolling, as Snyder next helmed the long awaited big screen battle of the World’s Finest in this year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Again, the promotion painted a grand picture and while audiences were less in awe, they still turned out in big numbers, before sour film reviews (from critics and audiences) scared them off after a strong start. Still, in spite of DC and Warner Brothers waiting for their breakout, Ben Affleck’s Batman was a big success at least and the future was bright with Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Justice League incoming. First however, it was time to get a little…crazy.
Suicide Squad is based on the lesser-known comic book series, originally created by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru, and is a great risk for the studio. Smaller characters placed front and centre and some inspired casting decisions, as well as David Ayer taking the directorial reigns, painted a picture of a potentially very different comic book film from the offset. From the first Comic Con footage onwards, the trailers showcased a feisty, attitudinal offering that oozed style and fun - an aspect that Batman v. Superman was accused of lacking. With the Bohemian Rhapsody backed trailers and a long overdue first live action outing for Harley Quinn (The Joker’s girlfriend), the hype was great with this one. And then, film reviews landed. Reviewers have blasted Suicide Squad as “ugly”, “sexist”, “plotless” and “incoherent”, with editing/tone issues and direction being highly torn apart.
Throughout its production, the stories of on-set antics were big headline grabbers, from the cast tattooing one another to Jared Leto’s method acting - as the brand new Joker - taking weird gift giving turns. And after the film was reviewed, the stories have only grown in number, with reports of Warner Brothers losing their nerve and reshooting and cutting the film to ribbons. As well as the pressures director David Ayer faced throughout production but with Ayer defiantly quoting Emiliano Zapata and calling the film “his cut”, it seems that we won’t be getting the “Ultimate Edition” we did with Batman v. Superman on DVD. So, here it is, Suicide Squad, the movie that needs to be a hit for DC and one of the riskiest projects in the genre, since Marvel aimed to put together the Avengers. Some have called Suicide Squad a disaster of Catwoman, Fantastic 4 or Elektra proportions, but the brilliant advertising has done its job thus far as, at time of writing, the film has broken the August opening weekend record, held previously by Marvel’s (some might say) similarly themed Guardians of the Galaxy. Anyway, after all this background, is it really that bad?
Suicide Squad sees ruthless government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) try to get her Task Force X initiative approved. This task force would ambitiously assemble some of the world’s deadliest villains, control them and use them as problem solvers for the fights that the ordinary military are “unequipped” (or too sane) to handle. Needless to say one of those very problems soon arrives (quelle surprise) and this “Suicide Squad” is sent in to ensure victory, or, to die because they are just “the bad guys”. There is no denying that villains truly do steal many a show, so the concept of this film is a tantalizing one for sure. And, after all the critical scorn, there is no doubt about it, a perfect film this is not but what is? And for something to stand out, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it does however have to be interesting…and that is one of many words to describe this!
Like Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, this blockbuster supervillain ensemble caper is a film with core flaws but imbued with passions and a love of the source material. Suicide Squad is an interesting point in the ever-increasing ranks of the superhero genre and in many ways is an amalgamation of the music video generation, narrativised advertising and comic book mythology. In this day and age audiences are ever changing and in its uncaring approach to being neat and tidy, this frantic feature is the epitome of punk rock. Its aesthetic is grungy, dark, neon-lit, gangsta and takes the flash of the genres’ mainstream output and drags it into a hellish mosh pit. From the opening moments of the film, replete with instances of problematic edits and an unhinged tone, Suicide Squad should not work and yet it does, in fact it’s skittish studio interference has only added to the wacked out vibe of this well advertised, badly reviewed, dizzying, spectacle.
Studio meddling is not to be advised (see 2015’s awful Fantastic 4) but even with the film’s seeming descent into formula, Suicide Squad never loses the feeling that you are watching something unique. The narrative is actually pretty damn straightforward but complicated by the barrage of sequences and flashbacks, which each add a deranged highlight to proceedings. Even as the film’s main antagonists seem to go all Avengers Assemble on us and the third act syndrome looks to be rearing its ugly head, the intercutting scenes of these villainous characters’ aspirations and the strength of the character chemistry, ensures the charisma catches like wild fire and stamps out those flaws. True the movie’s real antagonists, while imposing and pushing the main collective to the brink many times, could be accused of being atypical all powerful foes, were it not for the fact that this feature is literally a villainous potpourri…so you are spoiled for choice when it comes to bad characters.
Critics have chastised the structure of the film but rarely has an adaptation ever felt so much like a comic book. The first quarter is practically a show reel of character introductions, pop-up bios, and back-stories, with such a fast pace and anarchic style that you genuinely feel as though you are flicking through the pages of art and speech bubbles. And, as the film progresses, what other critics called tonally confused I saw as artistic unnuanced statement, as the punkish identity remained expressive in Kate Hawley’s brilliant costumes and the massive array of make-up and hair stylists work, but was amplified by heavy influence from B-Movie cinema. In fact you might say Ayer’s film is a $175 million B-Movie take on the genre, with heavy influence from ‘80s action cinema (Escape From New York serves as inspiration for the film’s central plot and the dialogue feels like a product of a macho actioner of that era) and prison movie classic The Great Escape.
However just as (if not bizarrely more) integral to this rulebook burning motion picture, is the soundtrack. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the film is full of popular music but that is really where the links end, as this eclectic gathering of AC/DC, Queen, Eminem, Twenty One Pilots and Skrillex & Rick Ross thunders into action often and is accompanied by a great retro score by Gravity’s Steven Price. Suicide Squad uses its music to enhance its simplistic story and just to get the blood pumping, as the film really defies the laws of narrative cinema, often stringing sequences together. Make no bones about it, this is no masterpiece but it is a stirring piece of work that tells a story in unusual ways and provokes an abnormally strong response, especially when it comes to its ideology.
Professor Geoffrey Cocks, in the mind blowing Rodney Ascher documentary Room 237 (2012), said, “we all know from postmodern film criticism that author intent is only part of the story of any work of art. Those meanings are there regardless of whether the creator of the work was conscious of them”. Whether David Ayer intended to lace his film with some of the themes I took from it is debatable but there are many to indulge in. Self professed intentions to make the film “for the fans” means there are many DC Comics based Easter eggs to enjoy. In addition to this however, Suicide Squad has much to say about rightist politics in the climate it presents, as well as the early scenes of prison guards ill-treating inmates commenting on institutional abuses of power and the fact that Waller, in many senses, is the movie’s true villain, creating an all too apt angle of government corruption to the story and depicting the dissention of moral fibre in contemporary corporations.
Then there is the much publicized issues of sex, as Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn has been labeled fetishized by critics and the abuses of women in the film have been brought to question but strangely feel less of an issue considering Viola Davis’ screen stealing presence as Amanda Waller. Davis is a bigger badass than any of the macho team, and her Waller is no nonsense, successful and a ferocious professional, who in the face of failure is as defiant and aggressive, as she is in the face of victory and Davis plays it beautifully. In fact this is one thing that Suicide Squad does very well indeed, with no quibbles: the characters.
As previously mentioned, this feels like a living, breathing comic book and with the bullet fraying action scenes and dark and explosive set pieces, it sometimes has a feeling of a rave in hell. And the characters that take up the dance floor are so good at being bad. Some have suggested this crew of assassins, psychopaths, sociopaths and monsters are not nasty enough, only in the next breath to complain about the abusive relationship between Joker and Harley Quinn. As one IMAX friendly life and death flashback involving a chemical bath denotes, this is a bad romance and one that has always been built on torture, erratic psychology and Stockholm syndrome like symptoms in the source material, and is visually spot on in bringing such controversial aspects to the big screen. Trust me, there is plenty of evil here (especially in Mister J himself), as Harley also embraces her malicious deeds and Deadshot - despite a very human and well placed back-story – still aspires to shoot Batman in the mush. Whatta guy!
The film is full of manic characters and the cast goes at it with such rampant energy it is impossible to resist the film, even as its plot appears to be following the genre guidelines later on. Will Smith has not been this compelling in years, at least not since I Am Legend (2007) – a film not actually successful overall but boosted by Smith’s poignant performance – and as Deadshot lends this film a swagger. Meanwhile Margot Robbie commits the biggest robbery of the entire cast (and I don’t mean when she steals a purse from a store window), as she steals the entire film, being perfect as Harley Quinn. She is so exceptional, funny and bat swingingly mental as Quinn that a standalone movie is a most stirring prospect and Robbie nails ever essence of the character, a fact Quinn’s creators agree on. This is evident by her excellent interactions with Jared Leto’s smaller, drip-fed, introduction as our new Joker.
Leto’s portrayal of one of comic book’s greatest creations is potentially polarizing but his blending of Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger’s incarnations of the character with Ziggy Stardust and Marilyn Manson, make the scenes with his gangland, tattooed arachnid mannerismed madman most effective. See one particular flashback chase sequence with Joker and Quinn pursued by Ben Affleck’s Batman, which was a car chase sequence that felt like a pure homage to Batman: The Animated Series, and sent me hurtling back to my childhood. And then there is the supporting players, who likewise offer many moments of fun, in an undeniably crowded film (cameos, references, a big ensemble) but one that gives the crew something interesting to do.
Jai Courtney is actually fun (shock horror) as Captain Boomerang with a heavy accent and Hobo with a Shotgun fashion sense and mentality; Jay Hernandez is very understated and enjoys his own emotive arc as the New 52 influenced El Diablo, while Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Katana (Karen Fukuhara) are mostly silent presences (save for the odd back-story hint for the latter and jokey dialogue in the case of the former); and Joel Kinnaman strikes a very interesting element to the film as Rick Flag, the “do as instructed” military man with a romantic connection to the Enchantress’s human counterpart Dr. June Moore (Cara Delevingne). And while there are some issues in her construction, the split personality witch The Enchantress is effective in raising a point about mankind’s shift in allegiances from faith in god to worship of Samsung! Adam Beach also appears as ace grappling baddie Slipknot (no relation to the masked metal gods - though they would be very at home in this mad, mad world), who is another bad to the bone character (who originally was penned to be a rapist). These characters highlight just how much of a f**k this film doesn’t give when it comes to the rules – both in terms of the genre and in terms of what makes perceived great filmmaking. Someone said the other day, this was “the worst film I have ever loved”, and that could be a sentiment felt by many, as this demented epic is playing with audiences far better than Batman v. Superman did.
Sure there are flaws in the editing and structure but in this warped work, these issues are like another buckle on the straight jacket, and adds to this joyride through pop culture and comic book lore. David Ayer’s film is less cult more cult of personality and like the music genre it is most evocative of - punk rock - its initial bad reception could well be alleviated when the film is re-evaluated in some years time. Suicide Squad is refreshingly different, with stakes onscreen and off and a real erratic unpredictability to it and while many will hate it, there is mountains of material here on which to discuss further, in a film that reflects a shift in narrative cinema of late, from professional to stylish and a possible change of pace for cinema in general, as music video culture and the world of the comics become our new fairytales. Purists will weep but cinema is an always-changing beast and one wonders if there will be a societal kick back from the film’s style and approach, with people taking the film’s Hot Topic esque dressings to heart. DC Comics and Warner Brothers may not be matching Marvel’s efficiency in constructing their long term plans but with Suicide Squad they get tongues wagging and interpretations raging in a ballroom blitz I can’t wait to attend again.