Suicide Squad, a riff on The Dirty Dozen set in the foundering DC Comics movieverse, should have been DC's answer to Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant-Man — a low-pressure romp through the weirder corners of its superbeing sandbox, unencumbered by brand-maintenance obligations. It wants so desperately to be subversive and irreverent in the manner of Fight Club or, more likely, Deadpool. And yet the most shocking thing about it is how risk-averse it turns out to be. Where the 1980s iteration of the Suicide Squad comic book functioned as a sort of clearinghouse for D-list DC characters, the movie takes the view that the likes of Katana and Captain Boomerang are priceless specimens of intellectual property, to be preserved at any cost.
At one-third the budget ("at least $175 million," says the Los Angeles Times), it might've been three times the movie. But the economy version probably would not have had Will Smith, whose cocky line readings (as Deadshot, an assassin whose gimmick is, um, accurate shooting) are Suicide Squad's only reliable source of pleasure. Even Margot Robbie (as Harley Quinn, a psychiatrist driven mad by her love for The Joker) and Viola Davis (as white-collar Black Ops honcho Amanda Waller) can't escape the miasma of miserabalism.
Ladies and gentleman of the committee, it gives me no pleasure to report these findings. I had real hopes for this thing, because Warner Brothers hired a real filmmaker to write and direct it: David Ayer, a guy whose movies — often about cops and soldiers struggling to live up to their oaths — have been arresting even when imperfect: Training Day, which he wrote, is terrific for 80 minutes or so before it collapses. He wrote and directed the gritty, persuasive beat-cop flick End of Watch and the gritty, persuasive World War II tank drama Fury. Even Sabotage—a flop that starred a post-gubernatorial Arnold Schwarzenegger as the head of a crooked drug-enforcement squad—had a sleazy but undeniable authority.
That film was just the kind of nasty, unpredictable picture the PG-13-rated Suicide Squad wants to be but can't. It cost too much. Too many executives had too many notes. (Ben Affleck's Batman and Jared Leto's annoying-but-never-scary Joker make brief, dutiful appearances; they're as tangential to the story as the cameos in Ghostbusters.)
Even if the 11th-hour reshoots and competing edits -- one of them by an outfit that cuts trailers, to make the movie better resemble an ad for a movie — hadn't been reported, a lack of authorial vision would be self-evident. Squalid, arrhythmically paced, and confusing, Suicide Squad shows all the signs of studio panic and a rush to meet a drop-dead release date. But there's no reason to believe Ayer's version was a dark gem that will one day emerge unmolested to demand reappraisal. Though it's set in a smog-choked, rainy, urban hellscape ("Midway City" of DC Comics lore, as played by Toronto), Blade Runner this ain't.
This is a mission movie that doesn't even establish what the mission is. The entirety of the first act consists of Waller describing each super-antihero's abilities to a general and to Stranger Things' David Harbour over a suspenseful, action-packed ... restaurant meal. A series of flashbacks introduce some members of the team several times and others not at all — more evidence the movie was shoved into theaters unfinished.
Anyway, the meal must have been good because the Joint Chiefs give Waller the go-ahead to assemble her supervillain "Task Force X," and soon enough they're dispatched to repel a supernatural attack on Midway City. The whole point of this team is that the government can disavow all knowledge if they're captured or killed. That makes it seem sort of indiscreet to fly them around in military helicopters and to place them under the direct command of a uniformed Army officer (a strung-out-looking Joel Kinnaman as Capt. Rick Flag), but whatever. I should mention Capt. Flag is in love with an archaeologist possessed by a 6,000-year-old witch. To ensure the witch's loyalty, Ms. Waller carries around her heart in a suitcase. I will not be taking questions at this time, thank you.
Anyway, the existential menace they must face is a glowing blue portal in the sky. The Ghostbusters would seem to be better equipped to handle this than a team that boasts a sharpshooter, a boomerang enthusiast, a human flamethrower, and Margot Robbie with a baseball bat. But to paraphrase a two-time U.S. Secretary of Defense: You go to war with the metahuman army you have, not the metahuman army you might want.
Or, apparently, the playlist you might want. Probably thanks to those trailer-cutting experts, the movie is punctuated with dozens of careless and surprisingly moldy music cues. These are not the meticulously curated deep cuts you hear in a Scorcese or Tarantino or Wes Anderson joint: before the title has even appeared onscreen in smeary neon Hot Topic graphics, we've already heard snippets of "The House of the Rising Sun," "You Don't Own Me," and "Sympathy for the Devil," a trio of (on average) 50-year-old classics that linger in the zeitgeist in part because they've been used in so many films and ads and TV shows and, yes, trailers. A little later, the movie throws in "Spirit in the Sky," a song featured on the Guardians of the Galaxy's "Awesome Mix" just two years ago. (If Ayer had thought to dredge up Prince's comparatively fresh "Batdance" for one of the Batfleck cameos, that at least would've been a solid joke.) Most baffling of all, when Ayer decides that homicidal amphibian Killer Croc's entrance calls for a Creedence Clearwater Revival number, he dials up... "Fortunate Son."
Because in the DC Comics Universe, "Born on the Bayou" was never written, presumably.
Just before the third act kicks in, Deadshot decides he would rather break into a bar to wet his whistle than complete the mission. The team follows one-by-one, and you'll want to head for the bar, too. But there's still another half-hour to go.