Marching to the rattle of machine gun fire and an ever-present mixtape of 60s and 70s rock, along comes writer-director David Ayer’s starry Suicide Squad to see out the summer season. Like a comic book-tinted Dirty Dozen, it introduces a band of criminals and misfits pressed into service as heroes by Amanda Waller (a glowering Viola Davis) – a government operative well versed in “getting people to act against their own self-interest.”
There are dark forces at work in Midway City, and so it’s up to sharp-shooting assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), crazed ex-psychiatrist Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and a bunch of other “psychotics and freaks” to bring order out of chaos. The only trouble is, neither Deadshot nor the rest of his motley crew – which also counts Aussie thief Boomerang (Jai Courtney) man-eating monster Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and flame-throwing hoodlum El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) – particularly want to commit to the mission laid out for them. To bring the Squad to heel, Waller comes up with a few tactics. First, she injects small explosive devices into the anti-heroes’ necks – these can be detonated with a handy smartphone app if they step out of line (one of the film’s many nods to John Carpenter’s Escape From New York).
Second, Waller has hired battle-hardened soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to act as their angry sergeant major. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the Enchantress (Carla Delevingne) – an ancient spirit of a witch who’s possessed the body of archaeologist June Moone (also Delevingne) and turned her into a glowing-eyed fiend who can bend the rules of time and space. Waller’s taken Enchantress’ heart and keeps it in a special suitcase so that even a being with her diabolical powers ends up in thrall to the US military.
That’s quite a roster of characters to introduce already, and we haven’t even described who the villains are or what they’re up to, much less the role the Joker (Jared Leto) plays in the whole scenario. We won’t go into detail about those matters here, since that would give away too much of the plot and, really, the movie itself doesn’t seem to fully understand what the villains’ motivations are. All we can say for sure is this: there’s a glowing white light in the middle of the city orbited by a nimbus of debris, while the streets are awash with an army of demonic goons who appear to talk backwards and have giant, throbbing blackberries (the fruit, not the mobile phone) where their heads should be.
There’s a better film in Suicide Squad somewhere, trapped under a giant throbbing blackberry and desperate to get out. David Ayer has long specialised in action thrillers with a tough, unvarnished edge, whether he wrote them (Training Day, Street Kings) or directed them, too (End Of Watch, Fury). With Suicide Squad, his most mainstream film yet, he appears to be attempting to graft the trappings of a comic book movie onto a classic war film template. So instead of cigar-chewing all-American soldiers we have an international cast of metahumans; instead of a Bavarian castle we have a generic US city; instead of Nazis we have an army of fruity zombies.
All of this would have been fine had Suicide Squad stuck to the simple plot this genre fusion suggests, but instead it weighs itself down with a tangled yarn of flash-backs and B-plots. Many of these are piled up at the front of the movie, so we get an insight into Deadshot’s tragic past and his relationship with his estranged daughter, or Amanda Waller’s motivations for setting up her squad of unhinged expendables. While these threads provide some arresting imagery – and great performances, particularly from Davis, Robbie and Smith – they gradually serve as a lead weight around the main story’s momentum.
Like several other superhero team-up movies we’ve seen of late, Suicide Squad piles its basket high with characters and digressions, seemingly without any reason for them being along for the ride. The Joker – played here by Leto as a kind of cross between a James Cagney gangster and James Franco’s freakish Alien from Spring Breakers – cuts a slinky, disconcerting figure. Whether or not he was actually required by the plot – other than as a cameo from Harley Quinn’s past – is highly debatable. Likewise a few other faces from the DC universe, most of whom seem to have been thrown in as links to previous movies or those yet to appear in cinemas.
An over-cooked plot with under-written villains is relatively easy to overlook for the first hour or so, largely thanks to the charisma of Ayer’s superbly-chosen cast. But the labyrinthine set-up really begins to tell in the second half, as the story descends into a miasma of flashing lights and conspicuously rushed-looking CGI. Ayer hasn’t really delved deep into the realms of the fantastical and the effects-driven before, and he doesn’t appear to attack it with much conviction here. The film’s central threat emerges as an ungainly, cavorting thing that looks like something out of Alex Proyas’ ill-advised fantasy throwback, Gods Of Egypt. Studio meddling? A case of too many eager fingers in the editing room? Rumours and stories already abound, but only the makers know for sure.
From Suicide Squad’s gaudy posters to the bling-encrusted guns wielded by the Joker, Ayer’s movie tries hard to affect an in-your-face, designer-nihilistic tone. Yet under the trendy surface, the movie’s curiously desperate to please: its gunplay, loud music and oddly flat one-liners akin to a sideshow entertainer willing to set fire to himself to keep the audience from falling asleep. The action and attitude may be enough for some; many, I suspect, will simply leave the cinema feeling tired and more than a little confused.
Suicide Squad is out in UK cinemas on the 5th August.