They say the third time's the charm; this is somewhat true for "Suicide Squad," the third attempt to get fans excited for the DC Extended Universe. In truth, David Ayer's antihero actioner is unlike any other film of its genre, but I don't mean that as a glowing compliment. To enjoy (or at least try to enjoy) "Suicide Squad" is to drop what you might expect from it or any other comic book film and just go along with its gonzo personality. I say "try to enjoy" because there were multiple points in the film where my personal excitement for it was simultaneously satisfied and challenged. I've been ambivalent towards comic book movies before ("Man of Steel" and "Batman v Superman" were visually stunning but morally bleak, not to mention convoluted as hell), but "Suicide Squad" is a whole new kind of confusion. Its intentions are mixed, and its execution bewildering at best. There is a method to its madness, but there is also a madness to its method.
Superman is no more, and the US government is looking to make sure that the appearance of another meta-human is met with appropriate measures. Cue intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a fiery woman with a plan for protection from potential threats to humanity. She assembles a team of some very unlikely saviors. There is Deadshot (Will Smith), an expert hitman who never misses a target, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a former doctor at Arkham Asylum turned psychotic moll for The Joker (Jared Leto), the unpredictable Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), the incendiary El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), the cannibalistic Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the lethal Katana (Karen Fukuhara). Together, these troublesome killers go up against Enchantress, an ancient witch-god who has possessed the body of Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne), the lover of team leader Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). Meanwhile, The Joker devises a coup to waylay the team and reunite with Harley.
Ayer plows through character introductions and backstories to spare the film from slogging before the team gears up for a fight. The film kind of begins before you know it, but I actually admired this crazily speedy roll call for the main players. In fact, much of what works in "Suicide Squad" comes along before the bad guys are sent out to defeat Enchantress's faceless army. Normally, this type of set-up would be irritating, but Ayer counteracts some of this frustration by injecting a gleefully comic book-y flavor into the first act. Unfortunately, that energy fizzles out by the time the action rolls around in the last two acts, but then it comes back, then it disappears again. (This repeats with no real rhythm for a while.) Uninitiated viewers may be hard-pressed to keep up with the film's schizophrenic pace, while fans will be rewarded with the sensation one gets when reading a comic book.
Zack Snyder tried to create that same sensation in his films by recreating comic book panels in sweeping slo-mo, but Ayer knows all too well that a bunch of moments like these aren't enough to recreate such a feeling. The film does have its fair share of glorified slow motion (which goes a little overboard in the third act), but it also tries its damnedest to stay as visually dynamic as a comic book might be. One minute the frame is drenched in dark grays and faded colors, the next it becomes oversaturated (particularly whenever Enchantress or The Joker appear). This is just one example of the sort of scatterbrained style of filmmaking that makes "Suicide Squad" both oddly alluring and mildly infuriating.
What is most infuriating about the film is that it doesn't have a compelling plot or well-developed characters to help viewers adjust to its disorienting atmosphere. (The dialogue is also pretty horrendous.) Each member of the squad has at least one moment to shine, but most of them are shoved aside to make room for Deadshot and and Harley, but even they feel just as embryonic. Smith inflates his charisma quite a bit here; he essentially plays a sarcastic version of himself that happens to be an expert shot with any loaded weapon. Robbie absolutely nails it as Harley, though she often drops her New Yawk accent and doesn't have much room to explore how wild she can be.
Speaking of wild, Leto's take on the maniacal antics of the Clown Prince of Crime is by far the high point of the whole film. Why then is he left in the sidelines for most of the runtime? The Joker's role here does leave much to be desired, since he is usually assigned to be the scene stealer, but Ayer sees him as more of a wild card. He pops up when you least expect it, ready to cause trouble for anyone standing between him and Harley. His scenes with Harley hardly last a minute, but their chemistry is almost irresistible. We may only get a small taste of the unpredictable clown, but oh how sweet it is.
Ayer strives to make "Suicide Squad" a team effort, relying on emotional contribution from each character to drive the drama and the action forward. This worked in his previous film, "Fury," but Ayer fails to embellish each character enough to make it work here. An even bigger loss is the gritty realism and camaraderie that made Ayer's "End of Watch" feel so genuinely human. I realize that we're dealing with wacky characters, and an even wackier scenario that doesn't elicit much from viewers, but it's still a sour disappointment to see Ayer waste some of his greatest talents on what could have been a sensational detour from typical genre fare. At least he has a better understanding of what makes these movies worth seeing than Snyder ever will.