"Suicide Squad" Ends Up A Merrily Manic Ode To Remix Culture

“Suicide Squad” stands alone among Hollywood’s recent crop of comic book films as a gaudy, grungy bit of street art, unceremoniously tagged over by a panicked movie studio. Unlike so many modern superhero movies – sterilized, try-hard, or otherwise – Warner Bros. clearly allowed “Fury” filmmaker David Ayer to make the DC Comics-based “Squad” in his own image. Only then was it hastily made over for fear of a repeat of Zack Snyder’s morose mop of gutter trash known as “Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.” The damage? A uniquely addled comic book yarn that’s weirdly refreshing in its apathy for anything but its performers. In brief, it’s a David Ayer movie, albeit a little short-circuited.

The “Training Day” writer has turned into a better director than the director of “Training Day” (Antoine Fuqua), doling out memorable tough guy movies at a consistent clip. Some of them good, some of them hilariously misguided (“Sabotage”), but all distinct, putting a premium on character work and stirring performances.

Accordingly, the cast of “Suicide Squad” is no accident. From former box office world-killer Will Smith as wearied hitman Deadshot to much-maligned Oscar-winner Jared Leto in an extended cameo as the clown prince of crime, Ayer’s cast has been form-fitted to his characters. Not the other way around, where the names and faces on badly Photoshopped one-sheets are interchangeable. The cast here is everything, the whole endeavor riding on their charisma and interplay. There aren’t even any big action setpieces to speak of. When the movie doesn’t work, it’s entirely a function of the performers in the scene (not the plot, not the special effects, not even the dialogue), singing when they sing and sinking when they sink.

Ayer’s story – the government unleashing a bunch of wily criminals on a busted up metropolis in a last ditch effort to save the world – is more than a little reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 1981 classic “Escape From New York.” But the story isn’t Ayer’s thing. The characters are his everything, comprising a bona fide comic book hang out movie. And they mostly deliver, lending any given five-minute stretch five times the personality of the entirety of “Batman V Superman.” Even the most insignificant among them receives a fun moment or two, but for one exception: Adam Beach’s Slipknot, abruptly dispatched soon after being introduced.

Oscar-nominee Viola Davis (“The Help”) drops in first as Amanda Waller, the two-faced agent responsible for assembling the movie’s titular team of bad guys, known formally as Task Force X. (Fret not, dear moviegoer; Will Smith gets to drop a glorious “What, we some kind of suicide squad?” not thirty minutes into the film.) Waller might have been an utterly thankless role but Davis makes her into something irresistible, convincingly staring down a gallery of cold-blooded killers with but a wry grin. Joel Kinnaman (“RoboCop”) has just as much fun as Rick Flag, Waller’s second in command, with the duo slickly assembling their team of antiheroes with a whisper of ghost stories and the accompaniment of way too many pop songs. (More on the music later.)

Will Smith is a dynamo as Deadshot, coming through with a performance every bit as committed as his comeback role in last year’s “Concussion.” The hitman’s rivalry with Batman (Ben Affleck reprises the role briefly) and broken family life immediately seem fully formed, both miraculously set up in the same scene. Although the movie mostly belongs to Smith, his performance and the movie’s understandable reverence towards him (his character makes a complete, convincing arc) scream out for a solo film. Here’s hoping he gets it.

Then there’s Margot Robbie. It’s not just difficult imagining another actress pulling off the Joker’s psychotic accomplice and girlfriend Harley Quinn. It’s impossible. Robbie’s underwhelmed since her debut in “Wolf Of Wall Street”, but Harley is a skin-tight fit, the actress effortlessly ricocheting from scantily clad sociopath to former self (a respected psychiatrist) and back again. This version of the character isn’t a straight lift from the comics, but the cooing and the Jersey accent and the energy are all there, as she plays successfully off of the movie’s second most half-baked character.

That’d be the Joker himself, a performance requiring a fool of an actor. Only a fool would willfully follow up the late Heath Ledger’s interpretation in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” But the Joker can be kind of a fool, and Leto complies, putting an agreeably dopey spin on the character like we haven’t quite seen before. That’s not to say it’s particularly impressive – he’s imagined the Joker as a tattooed reject from Joel Schumacher’s first neon-drenched Bats movie, “Batman Forever” – but he never gets in the way, content to dominate his own little corner of the movie. He pops in and out of the narrative in pursuit of Harley, easy enough to take in small doses.

The movie’s worst concoction is far and away its witchy villain, Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress. Nearly every scene featuring her and her human host June Moone is a disaster of characterization, special effects, or both. Delevingne lacks the experience or magnetism to power through, unwittingly pulling the movie down over and over again. Moone’s romance with Rick Flag is also DOA, ruining a perfectly good chance at a compelling love story – or at least a watchable one.

But there are so many characters here that one lousy one isn’t a deal-breaker.

Jay Hernandez (“Hostel”) delights in his role as Task Force X team member, tattoo enthusiast, and pyrokinetic Diablo, fashioning him into one of the movie’s most compelling personalities. His backstory, saved for late in the film, is startling, reminding us that these are very bad guys but also very human (or metahuman). The actor does a lot with a little up until then, bringing home his couple of big scenes with gusto. Conversely, he also gets the picture’s silliest, most screamingly funny moment in needlessly spelling out “bye” in flames. If it’s not a sign that Ayer is out to amuse himself above all, nothing is.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s scaly Killer Croc isn’t given enough attention to be nearly as intriguing as Diablo, but he’s a cool mix of physical effects and less-is-more writing, all the same. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and Katana (Karen Fukuhara) are the odd villains out here, mostly sidelined until they’re required to move the plot along. But the movie moves at a breakneck pace, refusing the notion that each character requires a certain amount of screen time. Ike Barinholtz’s smartass prison guard Griggs is handled similarly, trotted out to fun effect until the screenplay has no more use for him. Then we’re on to the next thing, all of it messily but dependably taped together by a handful of dynamic performances and one other thing: the music.

The pic’s relentless assault of pop songs, both old and new, gives credence to the rumor that ad agency Trailer Park was hired late in the game to reshape the movie to mirror their enthusiastically received trailers. At times the soundtrack is used like a radio dump button, pressed to cover up not a cough but a clumsy scene or a transition. It’s strange, it’s disorienting, but it fits vibe of a movie that’s been remixed beyond the point of a recognizable, three-act action film. It most often operates without rules, logic, or even sense, and the discombobulated soundtrack is a match.

In the end, Warner Bros. probably panicked for nothing. Ayer’s original vision was never going to be as empty or joyless as “Batman V. Superman.” But the amalgamation of two obviously competing cuts makes “Suicide Squad” all the more compelling – at least to anyone not married to traditional (read: coherent) storytelling. The film’s pleasures are in its cast, its characters, and its utter disinterest in being everything to everyone. It is defiantly not a Marvel Studios film, but not in the awful, depressing way that DC’s previous two efforts have been.

No, it’s something else. Something resembling narrative bedlam that’s shouldered capably by an enthusiastic stable of actors and a director who doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of him or his movie. All that’s missing is a Big Willie-style title track. Next time, Mr. Smith.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: August 5, 2016
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: David Ayer
Screenwriter: David Ayer
Starring: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Cara Delevingne, Adam Beach, Karen Fukuhara, David Harbour, Ben Affleck
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language)