Friday, August 5, 2016

Suicide Squad: Great premise, uneven execution

Suicide Squad (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.5.16

E.M. Nathanson deserves the credit, and nobody has the faintest idea who he is.

He wrote the best-selling 1965 WWII thriller, The Dirty Dozen, which director Robert Aldrich turned into a crackling action film two years later. With the template firmly established — that of disgraced convict soldiers sent on a suicide mission, with the promise of commuted sentences for any survivors — numerous books and films have “borrowed” the premise, often to crowd-pleasing results.

Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, center top) has his hands full, trying to control the behavior
of his misfit squad: clockwise from upper right, Deadshot (Will Smith), Captain Boomerang
(Jai Courtney), Katana (Karen Fukuhara), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Killer Croc
(Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)
Those crowds include comic book readers, particularly with the 2007 re-boot of this concept in DC’s Superman universe.

And why not? Bad guys always get the best lines, and there’s no questioning the vicarious thrill of watching villains allowed to behave reprehensibly.

As one of this new film’s characters impertinently explains, following a minor transgression: “We’re bad guys. It’s what we do.”

The audaciously irreverent big-screen adaptation of Suicide Squad has plenty of snarky allure, in great part thanks to Margot Robbie’s captivating star turn as the sexy, salacious and gleefully homicidal Harley Quinn. As any longtime comic book fan will attest, Robbie nails the character, with all of her cherubic, psychopathic charisma. Harley revels in her over-the-top awfulness, and Robbie embraces the role with lustful fury.

Comic book movies very rarely get remembered by Academy voters, but this one should; Robbie’s performance here makes the movie.

She gets a strong assist from Will Smith, doing an equally fine job with the more difficult role of Floyd Lawton, better known as ace assassin Deadshot. Most of the time, Lawton has no problem with killing at the behest of the highest bidder, but he hates being viewed in a negative light by his estranged but still devoted adolescent daughter, Zoe (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon, touching in a brief performance).

Smith, as a result, must navigate the more delicate waters of a conflicted soul: a bad guy who might possess a shred of nobility.

But we’re getting ahead of things. To the plot:

As the next installment in DC movie continuity, Suicide Squad — directed and scripted by David Ayer — takes place in the aftermath of early spring’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, which concluded as Big Blue was dealt a mortal blow by a Kryptonite spear. The U.S. government, in something of a panic, worries how a world without Superman could defeat the next hyper-powered adversary.

Intelligence office Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) offers a solution: Build a team of criminals with enough collective power to withstand such a threat. Although the suggestion seems preposterous — and dangerous — it carries a certain logic. Waller therefore is granted permission to collect the worst of the worst from Louisiana’s Belle Reve Federal Penitentiary.

They’re introduced in lengthy montages accompanied by merrily malevolent rock and pop anthems such as “Purple Lamborghini,” “You Don’t Own Me,” “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and (of course) the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Aside from Deadshot and Harley, the cherry-picked list includes:

• Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Australian “bad boy” thief and member of The Flash’s Rogue’s Gallery, who wreaks havoc with an assortment of clever boomerang weapons;

• Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an über-powerful ancient goddess imprisoned for eons in a magic jar, recently released and now inhabiting the body of archaeologist Dr. June Moone;

• Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a former gangbanger with the gift of pyrokinetics, now a guilt-ridden loner who refuses to wield the destructive flames that become uncontrolled when he loses his temper;

• Slipknot (Adam Beach), a misanthropic escape artist who can climb, entrap or break into anything with special ropes of his own unique chemical design; and

• Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a sewer-dwelling monster who grew up with a mutant condition that covered his body with scales and, enraged over time by the cruel behavior of taunting civilians, decided to embrace his cannibalistic crocodile-ness. With a vengeance.

All are injected, in the neck, with explosive pellets under the control of both Waller and her faithful right-hand man, veteran war hero Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, appropriately gung-ho). One step out of line, and they’ll simply blow off the transgressor’s head. (Shades of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plight, in 1987’s The Running Man!)

Minor misbehavior will be handled by Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a masked samurai who wields an ancient sword that absorbs the soul of those it kills. Not somebody to mess with.

Assembling the team, during a lengthy first act, is the film’s highlight. From that point forward, alas, Ayer squanders this momentum. Some sort of “bonding” sequence would seem a natural next step, but Ayer skips that completely; he never exploits the obvious potential of watching these misfits attempt to get along during some sort of military-style boot camp.

And why did we get back-story only for Deadshot and Harley? More missed opportunities.

Instead, Ayer skips directly to the same sort of tiresome, planet-threatening mega-menace that has become tediously de rigueur in recent superhero movies. Whether Superman, the X-Men or the Avengers, it’s never good enough to battle “regular” foes; they’ve always gotta be reality-shaping neo-gods who put the entire universe at peril. (Frankly, this film’s Big Bads are suspiciously similar to Apocalypse, who vexed the X-Men in their latest adventure.)

C’mon, folks: The “massive threat” here is more suited to the likes of Thor, not the Suicide Squad.

As a result, Ayer’s lengthy third act is little more than standard-issue melees and city-leveling explosions, along with the usual hoards of zombie-fied minions, this time former civilians whose bodies have been covered with pustules of what looks like hardened grape jelly. Been there, endured that. Major yawns.

But I shouldn’t be surprised by Ayer’s inability to perceive his material’s best potential; he’s the hack who unleashed one of the most repugnant action films in recent years, 2014’s appalling bent-cop Schwarzenegger vehicle, Sabotage. Ayer obviously wasn’t content to roll with established comic book continuity that could have made a perfectly acceptable adventure-with-attitude ... and more fool he.

Because, let’s face it: He also wasted his own best opportunity ... since Harley Quinn also happens to be the love-struck gal pal of the Joker, here brought to chillingly vibrant life by Jared Leto.

I’ve gotta say, Batman’s signature nemesis has been superbly treated by a succession of movies that have granted memorable performances to acclaimed actors: first Jack Nicholson, then Heath Ledger — who won a posthumous Academy Award for the role — and now Leto. He’s just as memorably terrifying, in yet another, entirely different way. And, good as they are individually, Leto and Robbie are even better together, their characters’ unholy chemistry the stuff of sadistic nightmares.

While it’s true that Leto’s Joker figures in these events, Ayer could — should — have done so much more with the character.

He also should have limited the wicked behavior to his larger-than-life villains. But no; Ayer never understands when he crosses the line. An unexpected act by Waller, as we approach the climactic battle, is needlessly, reprehensibly vicious: an utterly unforgiveable move that almost ruins the film ... and is precisely the sort of thing I’d expect from the cretin who wrote the aforementioned Sabotage.

Not even Davis, with all her thespic skills, can save the moment.

Ayer should be grateful that his transgressions are overshadowed by his enthusiastic, scene-stealing cast. Hernandez delivers poignant angst as the remorseful Diablo; we genuinely feel the guy’s pain. Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s basso profundo vocal intonations are a hilarious counterpoint to Killer Croc’s sarcastic one-liners, and Smith deftly adds a layer of inherent intelligence that makes Deadshot by far the most interesting character, in terms of real-world humanity.

And Robbie, of course, is simply a force of nature.

The overall verdict therefore is positive: Suicide Squad is far more entertaining — in an admittedly guilty-pleasure sense — than the relentlessly grim and dour DC universe efforts typified by the aforementioned Batman V Superman. That’s a definite improvement, for which Ayer certainly deserves credit.

That said, he really does need to be rescued from his own worst instincts.

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