“Are you the devil?” ~ Harley Quinn
“All you need to know is you work for me.” ~ Amanda Waller
“Oh, I’m not gonna kill ya, I’m just gonna hurt ya. Really, really bad.” ~ The Joker
“I’m a soldier, and you’re a serial killer who takes credit cards.” ~ Rick Flag
“Let’s go save the world.” ~ Deadshot
“I’m known to be quite vexing. I’m just forewarning you.” ~ Harley Quinn
In the latest of DC and Warner Studio’s efforts to play catch up with the Marvel cinematic universe, Suicide Squad has made it to theatres. The title, which dates back decades in the comics universe, mostly has to do with the idea of paroling perennial costumed criminals by making them carry out highly dangerous missions on behalf of the government. Think The Dirty Dozen mixed with a bit of Mission Impossible and apply that to comic book rules, and that’s the book. It’s been an idea with legs, and now in the midst of DC’s attempts to establish a cinematic universe (while casting aside their various television properties in favour of recasts), the team has ended up in theatres, with things about the end result that are likable... and things that are a mess.
This picks up in the wake of Superman’s death at the end of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (spoiler note: he’s not actually dead). Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a tough as nails intelligence operator, has a new concept in mind, placing a soldier, Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) in charge of a group of imprisoned dangerous criminals as a black ops task force. Each of the criminals are considered disposable- to the point where they have small bombs implanted in them to take them out should they get any bright ideas.
The team is a mixture of sane and insane, of ruthless and unstable. Deadshot (Will Smith) is an assassin with some conflicted feelings on how he makes a living. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is a former gangster with pyrokinetic abilities; he feels he must do penance over his past. Killer Croc (Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje) is a cannibalistic monster with a reptilian look. Slipknot (Adam Beach) is a specialist mercenary with a mix of skills. Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) is a mentally unstable archaeologist with possession issues. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is a mouthy thief with an attitude and a talent with weapons. And Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, stealing pretty much the whole movie) is the lunatic girlfriend of the Joker (Jared Leto), demented in her own way. Along with the criminals is one volunteer, Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a sword wielding martial artist acting as Flag’s right hand woman. She luckily does not have to put up with the notion of having explosives implanted in her.
David Ayer wrote and directed the film. He’s had either role (or both) in films as diverse as Training Day, End Of Watch, and Fury. The script does have that Dirty Dozen feel to it. These characters are by and large not that likeable. Being career criminals will have that effect for you. But that applies to some of those acting legally and legitimately. Amanda Waller is thoroughly ruthless and doesn’t care what she has to do to get her goals done, which isn’t an admirable quality in a human being. Even Flag, a career soldier, can be less than ethical. The criminals themselves are mixed in what drives them. Some are inherently selfish, others are cynical, and into that is the notion of penance and making up for past sins.
The story is, however, muddled at times, but that feels like less the problem of the writer and director and more like the interference of studio executives trying to pack too much in at once. Some of the characters have more depth and characterization to their performances than others, who are getting the short end of things. The tone of the movie changes as things go along, and that contributes to the muddled feel of the story- it has a subversive streak at first that ends up becoming predictable. The film’s undoubtedly nihilistic- having this many villains bantering with each other will do that- and ultimately the motivations of the primary antagonist reflect the murkiness of the story. In a film that was marketed for its dark humour, some of the actual humour of the story feels more unintentional.
Ayer filmed on location- a lot of it was done in Toronto, so some of the streetscapes were familiar, while other location work was done around Chicago. He can handle action, which is certainly in play throughout the film, but at the same time the action sequences and general pacing of the film doesn’t come near to matching the Marvel cinematic films- another nod to the fact that DC is desperately trying to play catch up instead of developing things in a coherent, natural way. Again, it feels more like studio interference than the fault of the director- crowding the film with characters (two or three could have been removed entirely) seems to be a studio edict, and it ends up hindering the film here and there.
The visual look in a lot of the film tends to be murky, which is appropriate, given the circumstances. Some characters have the look down just right- Harley’s whole look suits her demented mind, and Deadshot’s look has an efficient, worn sensibility that actually fits in with the character. Croc has to be part CGI, a mass of muscle and reptilian skin often hidden beneath oversized clothes, but fitting with various interpretations from the comics. El Diablo’s look is appropriately nightmarish, even if it doesn’t quite fit the man himself.
The cast are hit and miss- and that reflects the simple fact that some of them get more attention than others in terms of the story, while others are highly overshadowed. Jared Leto isn’t part of the team, though he does factor into the story, as the Joker. He turns up here and there in the film, and the actor plays him as thoroughly demented, pathologically psychotic, and totally unredeemable. It’s not as good a take on the character as Heath Ledger or Mark Hamill’s extensive voice work (the latter being what I deem to be the definitive take on the Joker, ever), but Leto makes the most of his relatively brief time through the film.
Cara Delevingne gets underwritten as the Enchantress, to the point where the film does the actress and the character an injustice. The comic book version has straddled the line between villain and anti-hero, with her own mental issues. Here the character is taken in a direction that just doesn’t feel right, and smacks of all the interference of studio marketing chimps. Adam Beach, who’s an interesting actor in his own right, also suffers having his character bypassed and overlooked as the film goes along. Slipknot comes across as efficient and professional (even if he is a crook), but the story isn’t giving him as a character or Beach as an actor time to shine. Jai Courtney, who played the son of John McClane in the last Die Hard film (and made one think the kid was switched at birth), plays the character of Captain Boomerang in the way that fits who the character is in the comics- pretty much an unpleasant dirtbag.
Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje has had a long history of character roles in film and television, and has been in the comic book adaptation world before, having had played Kurse in Thor The Dark World, as well as the memorable henchman in The Mummy Returns, a pivotal cameo in The Bourne Identity, and the enigmatic Mr. Eko in the television series Lost. Here he gets to play Killer Croc, hidden beneath prosthetic makeup and CGI. The character’s a monster (in the comics he’s a perennial Bat-villain), and yet despite all that, there’s something about him that can still be sympathetic. The same quality of sympathy applies to Jay Hernandez’ take on El Diablo. The character’s power over fire is mixed in with shame over the horrors of his past and the crimes he has committed, and he’d much rather stay out of the fight than go into it. Yet at the same time he views the opportunity as a chance to make amends.
Karen Fukuhara gets a role that is a bit underwritten as Katana. The character in the comics is somewhat complicated, with a whole lot of history among heroes of the DC universe. She’s a samurai and sword fighter with tragedy in her past. That does come across in the cinematic version, who’s on the team but not one of them- unlike the others, she’s not a criminal, so it makes her a bit of an outsider. She’s a ferocious fighter, but has morals and ethics- as well as coming across as a strong right hand to the team leader.
Viola Davis gets the character of Amanda Waller right. Amanda’s a long time comic character, a ruthless and tough intelligence operator who dislikes the superhuman community (and is disliked and distrusted by them in turn). In her mind, doing whatever it takes to achieve her goals is acceptable, human rights be damned. And that’s how Davis plays her, as a force to be reckoned with and the sort of person you don’t want to cross.
This is the first time I’ve seen Joel Kinnaman in anything. His character, Rick Flag, is a special forces veteran brought in to manage the unruly team of criminals and lunatics. He carries the role with authority, and while he takes his orders from the ruthless Waller, he doesn’t always agree. I like that he’s occasionally conflicted with his mission, and some of the different ways he interacts with other characters, particularly Deadshot, who’s something of a darker reflection of him- the two characters find their ethical points of view going back and forth.
Will Smith is written well as Deadshot, a character who has a lot of history in the DC universe, sometimes as an outright villain, sometimes as an anti-hero mercenary. In the film, the character is more sympathetic than some of his counterparts, conflicted in terms of what he’s done for a living. He also comes across as cynical and world weary at times, but also professional and highly efficient in his ways. The different ways the character spars with Flag and Harley in particular work well, and seem to fit in with Deadshot’s general personality.
Margot Robbie pretty much steals the entire film as Harley Quinn, the deranged occasional paramour of the Joker. The character’s origins date back to the animated Batman series of the 1990s as a sidekick of the clown prince of crime, before she was moved into the comics. She’s done a whole lot since then, even carrying her own solo series at the present. In the film, she’s thoroughly unhinged, with little care for social boundaries or manners, and the actress plays her with a gleeful streak of destructive energy and chaotic dialogue.
Suicide Squad has its ups and downs. It’s bleak and murky at times, both storywise and visually, which one can expect out of a team that’s not largely sympathetic. Aside from a couple of well placed cameos meant to further things along for the Justice League film, most of its characters aren’t really that well known to the general audience. Some of those characters get more exposure than others, who are seriously underwritten. It is predictable, and it reflects the fact that DC’s cinematic properties are still trying to play catch up to Marvel’s cinematic universe- the Marvel studio films have yet to have a misstep, unlike some of the company’s characters licensed to other studios. That said, the film works well enough on its own, with a demented kind of tone that fits many of its characters. Perhaps at its heart the movie reflects the old saying, send a thief to catch a thief. Or send lunatics to stop another lunatic, in this case.