Thursday, August 11, 2016

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Fail, Fail Again: David Ayer's Suicide Squad

I think the disparity we’re seeing in online reactions to Suicide Squad since its release, with critics absolutely blasting the film (it currently sits at 26% on Rotten Tomatoes) and fans defending it tooth and nail, boils down to the fact that critics showed up to this film to see a film, whereas the whiners wanted something much more difficult to provide – namely, validation for their obsession with a comic book brand. One such irate fanboy actually created a petition on suggesting Rotten Tomatoes be taken down entirely, due to its tendency to give the DC Extended Universe films “unjust bad reviews," which he saw as dangerous because that “affects people’s opinion even if it’s a really great movies [sic].” He has since retitled his petition to “Don’t listen to film criticism” and removed any references to specific films, no doubt thanks to a torrent of chortling commenters reminding him that Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Warner Bros, who produce the DCEU movies. To me, it’s an absolutely hilarious situation, which made sitting through the ugly, dull, reprehensible mess that was Suicide Squad ultimately worth it. For Warner Bros execs, I imagine the situation is far more serious.

This film was WB’s Hail Mary play, after all. With the brutal spanking that Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman dutifully accepted from critics and fans alike, they needed Suicide Squad to rescue their brand. In the wake of Marvel’s unstoppable Disney-fueled juggernaut, they were already floundering, and BvS was supposed to kick-start a whole new cinematic universe. Instead, it jammed on the gas and beached itself almost immediately, leaving WB scrambling to cobble together something else to keep them afloat. (I’m exaggerating, of course – the studio is full steam ahead on Wonder Woman, Snyder’s Justice League film, and more – but the brand power and long-term engagement they were hoping for now hangs by a thread.) Desperate for some can’t-fail inspiration, they turned to one of Marvel’s sleeper hits: James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, from which they cribbed a cast of C-list characters, a “humourous” tone, 1970s needle drops, and one (1) slow-mo “team walks shoulder-to-shoulder towards the camera” hero shot. What they forgot (or were unable) to include was that film’s likeable cast, well-written characters, sharp direction, solid editing, and genuine pathos. I’m gonna save you some time and money right now, if you were on the fence: don’t go. Suicide Squad has none of those things, and will baffle the hell out of you if it doesn’t actively make you mad.

The DCEU has tried to distance itself from Marvel’s work by adopting a more “serious” and “gritty” tone, which clashes horribly with the lighthearted antics this movie tries to sell you on. They do succeed in copying Marvel’s irritating propensity for plots that involve blue lasers shooting into the sky, uninspired villains with weak motivation, and hordes of faceless enemies for the characters to blast through – but that hardly wins them any points. Suicide Squad bears the telltale marks of a film that has died a death by a thousand notes; it’s been through so many revisions, edits, reshoots, and retoolings since production began that the end product can’t help but feel like a jumbled, incoherent mess. The first third of the film is a series of disconnected flashbacks introducing each character, making it almost an hour before anything in the film actually happens, and the latter portion is a plodding morass of dull action and teeth-grating dialogue. Jared Leto’s Joker, who shows up for about 10 total minutes of screen time, feels like he should have been a much larger figure in the film but had the majority of his scenes cut out. Ditto for Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, who feels more like an alternating sexual object and punchline dispenser than an actual character. There are ways this movie could have been done well, but WB and their pinch-hit director, David Ayer, let them slip through their fingers.

Will Smith as Deadshot and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn

I’ve spoken before about the way studios like to recruit small-time directors to helm their big brand vehicles (most likely as a way to invest them with a sense of authorial spirit and style, to help disguise the spinning cogs of the corporate machine under the surface). Ayer, with intense and critically-lauded directorial efforts like Fury, End of Watch, and Training Day under his belt, doesn’t quite qualify – but I can’t summon any other explanation for why he was chosen to helm (what was clearly supposed to be) a fun, humour-filled comic book blockbuster. His realistic, up-close-and-personal style is utterly misplaced in Suicide Squad, and he’s unable to wrangle convincing performances out of most of his actors. Blame for that could also be laid at the feet of the editor, John Gilroy, whose resume is full of beautifully-cut action films and who delivers a knot of barely-connected sequences here. Visually, it’s one of the ugliest films I’ve ever seen, with dim lighting, muddy CGI, and incomprehensible action sequences. Suicide Squad is rife with incompetent filmmaking (unnecessary closeups, unmotivated camera movement, weak direction, etc) and obvious studio oversight, making it downright unpleasant to watch when it isn’t just deathly boring.

There are a few things I enjoyed, but they were few and far between. Margot Robbie does her damndest to make the psychotic Harley Quinn a likeable character, and though Ayer’s horrendously written jokes fail her (one of her lines is literally “Now THAT’s a killer app!”), she brings her usual movie star charisma and is eminently watchable. Too bad that I was made to feel icky for watching her, because when the Suicide Squad is playing, the camera, the characters, and the audience are all participating in a lecherous leering party while she prances around in short shorts – a waste of a fine actress and an immediate turn-off. I was pleasantly surprised by the character of El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), an LA gangbanger with fiery powers, who had an unexpectedly affecting backstory and motivation that made his infrequent participation in action scenes actually somewhat meaningful. Viola Davis, as amoral government agent Amanda Waller (who recruits the film’s team of villains against a larger threat), reminded me of Jeremy Irons as Alfred in the way she brought poise, dignity, and professionalism to an otherwise lacking film. She spoke volumes with a single iron-hard stare, and made a much better villain than either the Joker or whatever that weird CGI monster was that they wedged into the centre of the plot.

Jared Leto as The Joker

Pretty much everything else was a wash for me. The rest of the film’s performances were forgettable at best (like Will Smith as expert assassin Deadshot, or Joel Kinnaman’s army-boy Rick Flagg) and utterly pointless at worst (like Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang, who adds no measurable skills or value to the team or the story, and who quits the squad in one scene and inexplicably shows up again in the next slow-mo shot). That’s to say nothing of Jared Leto’s Joker, whose performance is so fucking awful I still can’t even wrap my mind around it: he’s as baffling as he is insufferable, playing the Clown Prince of Crime as “eccentric turned up to eleven.” He’s shoehorned into the movie in a completely inorganic way, too, making all his appearances totally meaningless in the context of the film’s story. Leto has claimed that there’s tons of footage left on the cutting room floor, but personally – especially due to the creepy, disgusting relationship established between him and Harley – I’m thanking my lucky stars we only got as much as we did. If you’ve seen one scene in which Joker stops her striptease to offer her, sexually, to a gangster played by Common, you’ve seen ‘em all, I guess.

Everything in Suicide Squad feels painfully forced. The humour is wretched, the tone is inconsistent, and even the constantly-dropping music tracks feel misplaced, as though they were added in post onto scenes that did not anticipate them (which I’m sure is the case). Some elements, like Robbie, stand out as somewhat fun in the midst of a film that grabs you by the lapels and screams “THIS IS FUN” into your face, but even she can’t save herself from the maelstrom of nonsense swirling around her. I didn’t mention half the things that are crammed into this film – like the incomprehensible Killer Croc, or the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Slipknot (who’s introduced by having him punch a woman to the ground and defend it by claiming “she had a mouth”) – because honestly, they’re not worth mentioning. I can make the math very simple: Suicide Squad is 70% crushingly boring, 30% cringeworthy, and 100% not the winner WB needs it to be. Sorry, fanboys. I hope you can shelve your sexism long enough to let Wonder Woman drag you out of this hole.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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