Suicide Squad (2016)

★★

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Suicide Squad PosterDirector: David Ayer

Release Date: August 5th, 2016 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman

One of Batman v Superman’s biggest downfalls, as cited by the majority, was Zack Snyder’s reluctance to at least intermittently swerve away from a brooding tone. You cannot have a superhero movie without fun, right? And Batman v Superman was no fun, right? Perhaps I’m in the minority but I enjoyed the serious streak throughout Snyder’s film. Particularly the creator’s move to inject his superhero outing with a bout of harsh reality (co-writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer also deserve credit on that front). The end result never came close to threatening Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, not in genre terms nor thematically, but it did offer an alternative to the mantra of wit championed by Marvel.

Which is to say, essentially, that I was disappointed when I heard about the high profile Suicide Squad reshoots a few months prior to the film’s release. Especially since the rumour mill at the time pinned said reshoots on studio suits requesting more humour, they having seen an early cut of the film. Given this information was made public in early April, just weeks after the release of Batman v Superman, it doesn’t take a Commissioner-Gordon-esque detective to work out why DC higher-ups were worried about Suicide Squad’s tone. It’s a clawing bugbear of mine, changing one’s initial vision to suit the conjectural needs of moviegoers and/or studio execs.

And sure enough, the version of Suicide Squad that has made it through the cutting room and onto our cinema screens is a shell of what it could have — and very well may have — been. Jai Courtney revealed the reshoots were intended to bulk up the film’s action content, which strikes me as odd at best: I can’t say I’ve ever come across an action movie that wrapped filming without enough action. Regardless, if what Courtney claims is true, his words still paint the decision to reshoot sections as a worthless venture. The action in Suicide Squad is, after all, utterly generic. The fantasy elements are weightless. This is less Guardians of the Galaxy and more Thor: The Dark World — no Hiddleston or Hemsworth, only bland enemies and a lot of urban decimation.

Instead we have Will Smith as Deadshot, marksman extraordinaire and de facto leader of a criminal gang assembled by government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to deal with any catastrophic threat, such as a villainous metahuman. “In a world of flying men and monsters, this is the only way to protect our country,” apparently. Other baddies-on-a-mission include: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a psychopath, Courtney’s Captain Boomerang, flame-conjurer El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and a talking crocodile (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the guy keeping them all right in the field, though his mission takes on a more personal pretence when the impending catastrophic threat turns out to be his girlfriend. Well, sort of — it’s Cara Delevingne as archaeologist June Moone corrupted by a bland ancient spirit.

Having decided the successful introduction of so many new faces wouldn’t be enough of a challenge, Ayer also summons Jared Leto to play the iconic Joker character. And since the Joker is a classic Batman villain, Ben Affleck is afforded the opportunity to earn a fleeting Batcheck too. This volume is a problem, the film’s most glaring misstep. Suicide Squad is, by definition, an ensemble piece that should be about connecting the arcs of characters already familiar to us. The idea that anybody could reel off so many personalities and effectively colour each of them with specialised quirks and emotive ticks is absurd. It took four years and five films for Marvel to acclimatise viewers to its universe, and only then could The Avengers work as well as it did. (I don’t mean to invoke Marvel at every opportunity when discussing DC outings, but when the former has perfected a storytelling model it would be remiss of me not to point out the latter’s mistake in ignoring it.)

We have Leto, for instance, whose Joker is set up for big things that never arrive. The actor tries, his interpretation of the infamous bad guy more sex pest than chaos-breeder, but Leto’s lack of screen time means the character never gets the opportunity to develop nuance or follow through on threats. He merely exists as a symbolic construction for Quinn to maniacally lust over. There are others with similar troubles, notably Croc, who infrequently mutters, and Boomerang, who does more drinking than developing. The film even seems to acknowledge this persona overload in a defeatist manner when it unveils another squad member halfway through proceedings only to have him killed off within minutes.

A few have better luck. Robbie sizzles as Quinn. A total tease; bright, breezy, and bonkers. Roman Vasyanov’s camera does leer uncomfortably whenever she is on-screen though, apparently revelling in Quinn’s sex appeal and suggestive demeanour (there are numerous shots of Robbie bending over, the camera positioned conveniently behind her). Granted, Quinn is supposed to purvey an overload of toxic allure before uncovering more empathetic tendencies. If only the filmmakers had more faith in the process of emotion and not appearance. Smith and Davis are solid in their roles, especially the latter, brazen and cold as Waller. Kinnaman’s Rick Flag draws the most sympathy and is the one actually worth rooting for. Kinnaman, star of The Killing, should be in far higher demand.

The film begins with a rush of comic book style, neon text splashing across the screen as it describes the various attributes of our new cinematic inmates. We get short vignettes establishing the main players, these clips incorporated in such a way that they reflect the panel format utilised by their source material. It does feel like the writers are stuck in an introductory loop for around 45 minutes; we see and hear about Deadshot’s impressive skills, and then see and hear about them again as the story remains static. When the action does get going it’s unspectacular, falling foul of the genre’s MacGuffin obsession (something about removing an evil heart). Having said that, these sequences are at least grounded in that gritty, wet aesthetic Ayer seems fond of — see Fury. It feels like events are happening on the street and not in a computer game.

The idea, then, is we’re supposed to root for bad people and then wonder why we’re rooting for bad people. In reversing the moral polarities, Suicide Squad is supposed to encourage a more complex interpretation and consumption of the supervillain (and superhero) identity. That there are varying degrees of villainy, for example, and that perhaps some criminal activity has value in the form of defending us from even greater peril. The truth is you don’t really come away from the film debating the intricacies of that mindset. You leave wondering why you haven’t just watched a Batman solo outing starring Harley Quinn and the Joker.

Suicide Squad - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

★★★

The Man from UNCLE PosterDirector: Guy Ritchie

Release Date: August 14th, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander

If you have a particular preference for buddy cop movies set in 1960s Eastern Europe (technically it is Western Europe but the prevailing Cold War atmosphere favours the former) starring a Brit playing an American, an American playing a Russian and Swede playing a German, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is absolutely your kind of film. For those whose tastes spread more generally, Guy Ritchie’s latest adaptation is still an enjoyable and, for the most part, enticing action flick.

The director’s trademark style is plain to see — though in no way plain — from the beginning. We are introduced almost immediately to Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo, an exceedingly well kept CIA agent whose mission takes him to East Berlin where he must track down mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander). KGB handyman Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is also after Teller, whose family has ties to a complicated plot involving Nazi experimentation and nuclear weaponry.

An opening duel between the opposing operatives lights the fuse on a two hour game of one-upmanship. It’s almost comic book-ish, with kinetic pans across bleak urban locales and camera zooms in towards an extended car chase providing much verve. This early sequence in particular harkens back to Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes series, the dark and shadowy inflections of Victorian London incorporated again here, reflecting our two protagonists’ use of stealth and smarts as they attempt to gain the upper hand (shades of grey and black diagonally segment Solo’s face in scrumptious Hitchcockian fashion). The rest of the movie is mostly bright, its colour palette part of the confident — arrogant, even — bulbous energy.

Solo is no Han, though he and Teller do share a smidgen of Han and Leia’ feistiness (none of the romance). The agent exudes sarcasm and is a smarmy git, but Cavill’s cool swagger draws our affection; at one point Solo, in the midst of passing out, perfectly positions a few pillows beneath his head. The characterisation isn’t always this strong — Vikander’s seemingly distant chess piece stumbles through a faltering arc during which her actions are never really vindicated. The most egregiousness part is Teller and Kuryakin’s will-they-won’t-they relationship which feels too blasé for a film that is trying to be clever and slick.

There is a confident flow to proceedings when the two male leads are bantering back and forth. They are spies by trade but also convince as fashionistas, socialites and passive fiancés (well, sort of). Aside from the excellent opening, a team-up mission that both men wish to keep a secret is the film’s most entertaining occasion. It’s like an affair that neither operative wants to go public, and you buy into the individually-driven egotism each man displays.

Both actors assume their roles — Cavill as the upmarket Bond, Hammer as the brutish Bourne — with ease, a notion perhaps best embodied by a gadget-off at the beginning of said mission that sees Solo’s technical prowess out-muscled by Kuryakin’s straight-to-the-point mantra. The entire heist is a fine experiment in combative wit and told-you-so derision.

At one point we see then-President John F. Kennedy within the confines of a television screen, a reminder that events are unfolding in a paranoid and antagonistic setting. Ritchie needed to inject more of this uneasy tone, and should’ve taken a page out of The Winter Soldier’s book in doing so. It should be noted that John Mathieson’s crisp cinematography does evoke an effective era look, richly textured and striking in delivery.

But as snazzy a period piece as it is, the movie shares the same unfortunate lack of interest in exploring the suspicious undercurrents of its period as Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. We only really get broad East versus West strokes. The violence is kept to a minimum, which hampers any prevailing danger — greater bite would have upped the ante. It doesn’t have to be Fury, but an additional layer of grit would’ve assisted in shifting the characters from comic sketches to real-ish people.

There is an awful lot of exposition laced throughout too — the film disguises this information overload by getting most of it out the way in a snappy manner, zipping through newspaper clippings and newsreels during action lulls. “Whoever has that disk will simply be the most powerful nation in the world,” one character informs us before reaching through the screen and administering a collective elbow nudge to the audience.

The plot is quite messy. A plethora of agents, spies and turncoats are all invoked though many arrive without a sufficient backstory, or with a rushed one at best. Take the Vinciguerras for example, a villainous power couple who only seem to radiate villainy because they happen to be a power couple. As such it becomes increasingly difficult not only to engage with whichever talking head is around, but also to follow the intricacies of who is motivated to do what and why.

Hugh Grant shows up every now and again as Waverly (because he’s British — he even mutters the line, “Yes please. Thank you very much,” to compound the polite British stereotype). But Grant is so poised and brilliant in the role that it works. He’s a scene-stealer, possibly the best aspect of the movie. Now there’s at least one man from U.N.C.L.E. who deserves a sequel.

The Man from UNCLE - Cavill & Hammer

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures

American Sniper (2015)

★★

American Sniper PosterDirector: Clint Eastwood

Release Date: January 16th, 2015 (UK and US)

Genre: Action; Biography; Drama

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

The problem with American Sniper is not necessarily that it’s controversial — though that train of thought is somewhat justified — but that it’s rather dull. In regurgitating a story set almost entirely during the worst of the conflict in Iraq post-9/11, and one based upon real events, you’d expect director Clint Eastwood to have something potent to say about war. At the very least, it’d be fair to expect a consistently taut human drama. We get neither from American Sniper, a film weighed down by overt patriotism and silly writing.

Bradley Cooper (now the recipient of three consecutive acting nominations at Academy Awards) stars as US Navy Seal Chris Kyle, a former rodeo cowboy so pained by news reports of terrorist attacks on his home soil that he enlists to fight abroad. It’s nothing more than a solid performance from Cooper, certainly not one on the same level as his two previous Oscar nominated stints in both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

As the film progresses the bulked up actor’s role becomes an increasingly emotionless one, and consequentially quite thankless. Buying into the personal struggles of a man who spends his time in a place littered with death and despair — he, frankly, contributing to the mess — is a struggle in and of itself. This isn’t a critique of the real Chris Kyle, nor Cooper, and instead of the poorly conceived writing underpinning proceedings.

Adapted from Kyle’s own autobiography, Jason Hall delivers a screenplay severely lacking in nous or subtlety. Bearing no stance on the Iraq War that hasn’t already been exhausted on the big screen, or any screen, what we’re left with instead is a film trying desperately to convince itself that war is necessary. Men, women and children are all cast under the same umbrella marked “our enemy” and though this non-discriminatory outlook may well be a sporadically accurate reflection of reality, the film never suggests such a thing. Many of those whom the US soldiers meet in Iraq are carrying weapons with a view to kill. The suggestion is all civilians have been evacuated from the area of conflict, thus the ones who remain aren’t innocent. The fact that this wholesale evacuation hasn’t taken place compounds a lazily devised screenplay; as such, locals are placed on a morality gauge ranging from untrustworthy to terrorist.

In between head-scratching scenes that show Kyle conversing with his wife in the middle of a war zone — his attention should probably be on shooting all those baddies, right? — there’s a cat and mouse game playing out. An enemy shooter referred to as Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) is essentially the domestic Chris Kyle. Granted, the film is called American Sniper and therefore isn’t a piece that was ever going to pay as much attention to the non-American sniper, but the lack of dispersed humanisation is off putting. Kyle’s rapidly burgeoning Call of Duty kill count is celebrated with gusto amongst his peers whereas any damage done by Mustafa is vehemently denounced as the work of a “savage”. Of course it’s savagery, but there’s hardly even a nod towards the ambiguity of Kyle’s actions — when the film does venture down this route it only juggles the immorality of child-killing as opposed to people-killing.

The picture is at its most tense and best when Kyle is staring down the barrel of his deadly weapon, honing in on said infants and fuelled by uncertainty. Unfortunately any good work is undone by a laughably glorifying final sniper showdown. Intrigue edges up a tad when we’re back on home soil, where the military man feels more and more out of place as each tour ends. Sienna Miller plays his wife but doesn’t get enough to do as the narrative always chooses to follow Kyle when he goes overseas. She’s good though, infusing a bit of steel into Taya whilst also relaying the mental and physical exhaustion brought on by her husband’s constant displacement. Miller just about manages to overcome her unnecessarily bit-part function.

It’s this lack of urgency that hampers American Sniper, more so than any controversial portrayal or underwhelming performance. You’d expect it to be well made, and it is, but it doesn’t have the musky atmosphere of a Hurt Locker or the gruelling presentation of a Fury, nor does it bear the rich characterisation of those films. Tom Stern’s projection of a war zone is almost conventional, which is surprising given the cinematographer’s accomplished portfolio (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, The Hunger Games). Eastwood doesn’t do an awful lot to alleviate this encroaching mundanity, he generating a tone that stops short at implying the possibility of danger lurking around every pile of rubble.

American Sniper has done extremely well at the US box office and, despite a more conservative reception over here in the UK, has undeniably been a success — particularly when its financial clout is coupled with awards recognition. This review is a bit superfluous in that regard, but I don’t think it’s without merit. It is entirely probably that the patriotic element is something that works well in America but not as well elsewhere. We all suffer as equals through blandness though, and this is bland filmmaking.

American Sniper - Bradley Cooper

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures

Fury (2014)

★★★★

Fury PosterDirector: David Ayer

Release Date: October 17th, 2014 (US); October 22nd, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Action; Drama; War

Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña

War is a nasty business. Of course, contemplating the nastiness of war isn’t a new undertaking, nor is it something that Fury director David Ayer feels compelled to shirk away from. His film is really quite horrendous. We see limbless bodies and bodiless limbs more often than we see rays of sunlight breaking through the clouds of 1945 Nazi Germany. Ayer’s intimate tale isn’t a fresh concept to the silver screen and it has absolutely been done better before, but there is a lot to admire here.

As World War II nears its conclusion, a Sherman tank troupe commanded by US Army sergeant Don Collier (Brad Pitt) is hurtled into the bloody doldrums of battle in Germany. Fighting through urban wastelands and disfigured countrysides, the ‘Fury’ group of five must survive via a combination of camaraderie and brute force, all the while depositing innocence at each rotation of their vehicle’s caterpillar track.

Ayer localises a grand story and his film is all the better for it. Often, the key to success in the war genre is engaging an audience in the plight of a few whilst also acknowledging the struggle of many. Fury manages this, no doubt aided by a stringently focused narrative that follows a particular group of soldiers. It’s their story and we’re always in their presence, allowing time (well over two hours of it) for us to empathise with the characters. And while the camera never ventures more than a few feet from at least one of the five, Ayer’s induction of a heavy and wearisome tone relentlessly captures the universal toil of war.

These characters don’t write the guidelines on positive morality either. In fact, their contribution to the Allied war effort has flurried any goodness purveyed by Collier and his crew. They each have a nickname — fittingly Collier’s is Wardaddy. That is not to say the man heralds a thirst for battle, rather it highlights Wardaddy’s efficiency in dark turmoil. (“Do as you’re told, don’t get close to anyone”). Brad Pitt plays him without immediate discernibility, casting doubt not over the sergeant’s motives, but over his methods. Ayer’s quintessential heroes are nothing of the sort. There are no good guys, only perceived bad guys.

The remainder of the group bear roles that are more clearly defined: Technician Boyd “Bible” Swan is the devoted religious type; Corporal Trini “Gordo” Garcia steers the tank with eccentricity; PFC Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis lacks moderation; and Private Norman Ellison carries the newbie status, a kid lost amongst a conflict in which he shouldn’t be fighting. Logan Lerman exudes ordinariness as Norman, reminding us of war’s infecting bullet wounds on humanity. Walking Dead alumni Jon Bernthal is also terrific as the gruff Coon-Ass but it’s Shia LaBeouf who wows more than any other. Scrubbing the stigma of celebrity from his face and replacing it with rotten dirt, LaBeouf displays a great deal of restraint, his eyes never far from filling with tears fuelled by a scarred mind. It turns out he can act, and act well.

LaBeouf’s character is the agent through which Ayer introduces a religious thread, one that doesn’t wholly endear itself to the narrative but does contribute towards an emotive punch. These faith-based overtones aren’t distracting as they only rear occasionally, and despite manifesting as a tad contrived, they do represent an attempt to manoeuvre proceedings away from any potential muscle bound machoness of battle. Indeed, the film manages to extract a large helping of connectivity from the audience through solemnity, a theme that runs along the piece like one of Nazi Germany’s seemingly endless mud trails. This helpless sobriety is first summed up in statement relayed by Jason Isaacs’ army Captain (“Why don’t they just quit?”), before revealing itself plainly in an extended Inglorious Basterds-esque dining room scene rightly devoid of any Tarantino quirk.

After 90 minutes of gruesome despair, the outing suddenly shifts its gaze in the direction of a more action-packed conclusion. The final act essentially wears the hallmark of a western standoff, trading cowboy hats for leather helmets. Granted in its final half hour Fury still maintains a gritty realism but this divergence in tone might not appease all. Tank jousts do occur before the lengthy concluding sequence, but frequently end in a matter of minutes. These battles are arduous in their execution, just as they should be, and do not glorify the mechanical face of war at all, whereas it could be argued that the long, underdog-ish rallying cry denoted in the final act does invite a semblance of glorification.

Technically, the film is a powerhouse. Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov turns the English countryside (where shooting primarily took place) into a bleak, putrefying Nazi Germany at the end of its tether. Two scenes stand out especially: a beautiful opening shot that patiently stalks a lone horseman as he tramples over smoky ruins and comes face to face with the fragility of tanks, and a dread filled moment nearer the end that involves a collection of simultaneously marching and chanting enemy troops. This uncompromising style meshes wonderfully with Steven Price’s score and pinpoint sound editing, and comes as close as any film to achieving the fist-clenching ambience of Saving Private Ryan.

It is certainly not as good as Spielberg’s aforementioned masterpiece, but not many outings born from this particular genre are. Fury is a visceral and effective retelling of war at its most desperate and least forgiving. If nothing else, it’s an example of high standard utility filmmaking.

Fury - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures