If the heroes can’t do it, maybe the villains can. This has become DC’s byline as they’re forced to rely on Suicide Squad, an ensemble anti-hero action flick, to warm audiences to their cinematic universe after the tepid response to Batman V Superman earlier this year. Bringing together a roster of villains from across DC’s rogue’s gallery, the idea here is a Dirty Dozen-style romp featuring hitmen, psychopaths and a man who throws a lot of boomerangs. Though it’s certainly a little bit more lively than the dour BvS, David Ayer‘s bullet-filled caper fails to leave any sort of real lasting impression.
Will Smith and Margot Robbie head up the cast as Deadshot, an assassin who never misses, and Harley Quinn, the psychotic former lover of The Joker. They, along with several other top-tier criminals, are held at prison facility Belle Rieve prison by Amanda Waller. Played by Viola Davis, Waller has brought this group of the worst of worst together to create a team, to be used as a contingency should someone or something with superpowers threaten mankind. Sure enough, given this is a comic book movie, that’s exactly what happens, and the Suicide Squad is pushed together and sent into action.
Joining Deadshot and Harley in the squad are: fire-wielding gang-banger El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), deadly boomerang throwing crook Boomerang (Jai Courtney), reptilian man-beast Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), 6,000 year old demonic witch Enchantress (Cara Delevigne) and master escapist Slipknot (Adam Beach). They’re led by Joel Kinnaman‘s Rick Flag, a no-nonsense soldier who works to the behest of Waller, and his bodyguard Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a master swordswoman wielding a mystic blade.
If that feels like a lot of names, don’t worry – the entire first act is a rolling set of introductions for the characters that matter. Which, as it happens, is emblematic of the film itself sits together – barely. Suicide Squad is a film so stuffed with characters, it barely finds time to include them all. Though all of the above are involved in marketing, two are conspicuously absent until close to the halfway point, where they literally just walk onscreen like they were always there. And even then, it’s only thanks to some choppy editing in the action scenes that we’re reminded they exist as they almost totally silent for the duration.
Thankfully, those that are focused on are well capable of carrying the picture. Viola Davis is simply powerful, commanding audience attention with the tough as nails Waller. Margot Robbie excels in a lead role as the disturbed Harley Quinn. Purists of her character may be slightly disappointed in the portrayal, which leans more on her comedic, histrionic side and the film certainly makes note of Robbie‘s figure at least one occasion too many. But Robbie herself is relentlessly captivating, embodying the unpredictable spirit of the character.
Deadshot and El Diablo form the moral compass of the story. Deadshot wants to do something right by his daughter so she doesn’t see him as a complete monster, while El Diablo yearns to simply not be the guy who burns people to death any more. Fatherly melodrama is the kind of thing that made Will Smith a star in the first place, so this is a walk in the park. Hernandez, on the other hand, may very well be the breakout star. His emotional telling of how his powers destroyed his life is given just the right amount of heft to bring a tear to the eye. These two, along with Harley, each have a moment where they question being a bad guy, and whether they’ll ever get to be “normal.” The sentiment, despite being altogether hallmark, works because of those delivering it and their conviction.
It’s just a pity that outside of these key moments, Suicide Squad simply doesn’t leave a very strong impression. Some of the comedy is funny, but there’s no big laughs, some of the action hits hard, but there’s no big set-pieces. Neither Joel Kinnaman nor Scott Eastwood, the military soldiers who are given lines, do anything notable except stall for time for the appropriate narrative cues. Like the team themselves, the movie’s bits and pieces are just brought together and made to get along through some very obviously frankensteined editing and scripting. Deadshot’s backstory with his daughter is brought up continuously, while Boomerang is relegated to little more than drinking cans of energy drink and Katana barely gets a single scene of development. The characterization is totally lobsided.
It’s not helped by a needless subplot involving Jared Leto‘s The Joker trying to save Harley Quinn. The pair’s backstory is well constructed, Joker seen as an abusive psychopath who dismantled and rebuilt Dr. Harleen Quinzel. But Joker’s presence during the events of the film ultimately amounts to very little despite so much screentime. There’s no exploration, just a preamble that this version is a cartoony gangster with a large knife collection and stupid tattoos. He’s essentially an elongated trailer for the upcoming solo Batman movie from Ben Affleck.
All of which leads to a climax of big special effects and a villain for whom there’s neither a proper explanation nor a feeling of any real threat nor a tangible connection to the overall cinematic universe. Suicide Squad is a film that carries itself with all the confidence of a Guardians of the Galaxy, but with much less of the actual charm and balanced approach that made that so entertaining. Hell, it even uses a set of hit singles for its soundtrack. David Ayer is a proven director when it comes to smaller ensemble pictures, like 2014’s Fury, and perhaps with a smaller cast and less expectation, he could have delivered something to that quality. Instead, we get an outing with the best worst heroes imaginable in which the worst of the worst prove to be the best of the best at saving the day, right when we need them most.