It’s rare that I come out of a film as confused as I was after seeing Suicide Squad. The film, the newest entry in the now-rapidly expanding DC film universe, is pretty much exactly what it appears to be in its trailers. Group of bad folks, some with super powers, some of who are just really good at doing bad things, are gathered together by a sinister secret government agency. Some crazy shit goes down, they get sent in with little knowledge or backup, hijinks ensue. The Joker is there as a wildcard to screw things up. Batman shows up for a bit. The end.
It’s not a particularly good film. Director/wirter David Ayer sledgehammers his way through his script with little nuance or subtlety, shaking you by the shoulders and shouting in your face rather than showing you any kind of plot or character development onscreen. There’s little depth to the story and few of the characters have anything resembling an arc. As is the way with DC films right now, the entire movie seems to be shot at night, and the cinematography is dull, gray and lackluster.
If I’m being really honest? I actually enjoyed myself. Oh, little of that joy is due to Ayer’s script. That part is a generic and rote paint-by-numbers antihero redemption tale. The antagonists are massively powerful but with no real explanation of the source of those powers, or where they come from, or hell, even what their names are. But the action sequences are fun, with hectic, intense gunfights and some impressive hand-to-hand combat choreography. It’s not edited to death, a la Zack Snyder, which is an added bonus. It’s disappointing that the enemy troops are literally faceless nobodies, but the fighting by the Squad themselves is exciting enough to make up for it.
But the real reason the film works — albeit inconsistently and often clumsily — is that there are a core of three incredibly solid and thoroughly enjoyable performances. First, Will Smith does a great job as Deadshot, a never-miss assassin who is also a family man at heart. The film does a good job of not being too redemptive with his arc — the easy way out have been for him to realize the power of love or some shit. Instead, by the end Deadshot is still a conscienceless asshole — just one who realizes the realities of the dangers they face, and decides to pitch in with the angels for a little while. Smith is, as he usually is in action movies, Smith. But it’s tweaked with a dark streak, a grim humor that he carries off quite well. Viola Davis, as Amanda Waller, the head of Task Force X (the official name of the Suicide Squad) is absolutely stunning and goddamn terrifying. She is unflinchingly pragmatic and heartlessly dedicated, a fierce, steadfast woman who will do anything and kill anyone to achieve her goals. She does all of this with an incredible dry humor and a series of wonderfully arch facial expressions, a cynic’s cynic, and probably the best part of the movie.
Although a close second to the most enjoyable part of the movie is Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, the former psychiatrist turned demented Joker’s girlfriend. Robbie is excellent, even if her costume choices of sparkly short shorts and belly-baring t-shirts are painfully male fantasy-inspired and stupid. But she bathes in the role of Quinn, making her manic and whacky and crazy and funny. She kicks ass, but she also comes with deep, often unsettling insight into the motivations of her co-conspirators. It’s one of the film’s few subtle touches, allowing flashes of her previous therapist life to drift through the wasp’s nest of crazy that clearly buzzes around inside her brain. She’s a lunatic, completely without impulse control, but she’s also wickedly clever and Robbie nails it. Her rapport with Smith’s Deadshot is terrific and the two of them make a unexpectedly outstanding pair, improving on every scene when they’re interacting with each other.
The catch is that for however good the three of them are, the rest of the cast is mostly unmemorable. Joel Kinnaman growls a good bit but does little else as Rick Flagg, an oddly lovelorn special forces soldier seeking to aid in the redemption of his damaged lover (I won’t spoil that bit). Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang is goofy enough but there’s little for his character to do except play up his buffoonery. Jay Hernandez is good in his performance as the pyrokinetic El Diablo, but the character is so bogged down in lazy Latino stereotyping that it’s hard to connect with him. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Killer Croc is buried under makeup and speaks probably fifteen total words. He never lives up to the savage reputation the film wants to give him at the beginning. Adam Beach is in it for even less. Karen Fukuhara is there as a samurai, of sorts, albeit one prone to midriff-baring shirts and clunky dialogue (in truth, her backstory is lazy exposition dump by Flagg, which is disappointing and pushes the character out of her own story). Everyone is fine. Not terrible, not good. They’re fine, with some enjoyable banter going on and some clever moments here and there. Cara Delevingne is really bad as Dr. June Moone, a milquetoast simp of an archeologist, and even worse as her alter ego, Enchantress, a breathy wreck of a performance that wiggles and slithers through a completely vacuous and dull performance.
And then, there’s Jared Leto’s Joker. He is fucking terrible. I’m not saying he’s bad compared to the work of Ledger and Nicholson (though he’s a dull rock buried in shit compared to how brightly those two stars shone in their roles). I’m also not saying he’s disappointing because of how unfaithful he is compared to the Joker of the comics. I’m saying that his performance is atrocious, full stop. If I’d never read a Batman comic or seen a Batman movie, or if I was an aficionado, or somewhere in-between, I’d still feel that way. He’s overwrought and breathy and forced and awkward and I want to wrap his “method” around his throat and strangle him with it. There’s nothing redeeming about him or his performance, and it’s only made worse by the Ayer’s silly cosmetic additions to the character. The grill and the gold and the tattoos, all of it just adds up to a teenager’s vision of a super crazy bad guy, an empty husk jumping around acting kooky but utterly unconvincing in every aspect. It’s a small mercy that Leto is only in the film for about seven minutes, because he ruins every second that he’s onscreen. If he’s going to be part of the Batman franchise’s future, they are in serious trouble.
In the end, Suicide Squad is a difficult movie to review. As a whole, it’s a mediocre, rather ham-fisted effort. But there are parts of it that are genuinely great fun, and a handful of dazzling performances that made it probably more enjoyable than it has any right to be. It’s worth a watch, though I’d caution against spending big bucks on it because when it’s bad, it’s really bad (and the film’s final act is a garbled mess). A couple of years from now, this will pop up on cable and I’m sure I’ll think “sure, I’ll stop here for a bit to see Viola be amazing and watch some cool fight scenes,” but then go to the bathroom or fix myself a drink as soon as I see Leto’s dopey mug. Ultimately, Suicide Squad isn’t the mind-numbing cinematic plane crash that Batman v Superman was, but “not a virulent vortex of burning garbage” is hardly a ringing endorsement.