Suicide Squad (2016)

★★

Advertisements

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 Hunger Games (2012)

★★★★

The Hunger Games PosterDirector: Gary Ross

Release Date: March 23rd, 2012 (UK and US)

Genre: Adventure; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks

As District 12 native Gale peers pensively across a carpet of dense woodland, we know his thoughts are centred only on Katniss and what could’ve been. Many miles yonder, the Games are about to begin and the odds aren’t in Ms. Everdeen’s favour. In fact, the odds aren’t in anybody’s favour. The green canopy before him is an “escape” that Gale and Katniss have always cohesively pondered. Now, it’s likely too late. There isn’t much respite from this sense of pertinent dread throughout The Hunger Games. Themes of oppression, manipulation and artifice consume proceedings, each element tackled maturely and with a degree of intelligence. Though it’s based on Suzanne Collins’ teen-aimed novel of the same name, The Hunger Games beckons forth a far wider audience, a psyche that no doubt assists in creating close to an indelible franchise curtain-raiser.

In a dystopian future, the nation of Panem is segregated into 12 districts and a commercially rich Capitol. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is Capitol overseer, and his methods of maintaining ‘order’ in society rely heavily on a tournament of death called the Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) survives week by week in District 12, the poorest area of Panem, though since volunteering in place of her younger sister to take part in the 74th annual Hunger Games, survival has become a rare commodity. Alongside fellow district resident Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss now must participate in a maniacal free-for-all where there can be only one survivor.

An assured opening sets the stage for what is to come. The first act carries eerie subtlety, etching discomfort; a melancholic hum, almost vigil-esque, is interrupted by the hollow sound of a horn ushering in inevitable death. Later on, this underlying notion of distress plateaus as a 30 second countdown intermittently signals the immediacy of inhumane violence for Katniss. We see portions of District 12 that are hopefully its worst parts as anything poorer would imply extreme poverty — it is a place that could easily be mistaken for the downtrodden Ozark dwellings of Winter’s Bone, only unfrozen. Instantly an air of durability emerges, within which citizens have learned to fend for themselves. Katniss and Gale hunt in forbidden zones in order to feed their families, the former exclaiming, “Is this real?!” upon the sight of bread.

Shortly thereafter, the Reaping takes place and the Hunger Games players are selected. Booming screens represent a watchdog elite, the Capitol, whose justification for staging an animalistic melee is to protect those whom they rule over: “This is how we remember our past, this is how we safeguard our future.” It’s clear who the “our” in said statement denotes (and who it does not). The film’s inaugural goings-on are excellent, presenting an ideological enemy that bares no echelon of morality. We are already desperate to see those being held down rise up and, as promise dwindles, this desire escalates. President Snow refrains from showing face until events have advanced further and, in truth, has very little impact on the film as an active villain. His affects on events are delivered far more insidiously, his sophisticated whisper carrying indulgence, and this only serves to fuel a fire of loathing against the autocratic Capitol.

Having conjured up a seemingly impermeable enemy and a downbeat atmosphere bathed in truth — knowing these cruelties are very palpable factors in the real world makes them even tougher to comprehend — director Gary Ross must then offer a beacon of hope for viewers to grab hold. Occasional splashings of humour temporarily alleviate the heavy tone, but it’s Katniss who is the primary body of resistance. Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss, moreover. Sculpted from the get-go as necessarily protective of her loved ones, Katniss’ strength stems from a hereditary place, ultimately one that resonates with viewers. She’s unaware of but not impervious to pain when her family is at risk (an early finger-stabbing scene cements this). With those paternal foundations in the bank, Jennifer Lawrence adds rigour and ambiguity — we’re never entirely sure where her loyalties lie away from District 12 — though in distancing herself from other characters, she never distances herself from the audience. It’s a tremendous performance in a clinical role, and Lawrence deserves a lot of credit.

Tom Stern’s cinematography resembles his work in Mystic River, chartering gritty immediacy which, alongside instances of on-point editing, generates a jolting disquiet in the face of in-game brutality. Bloody splurges are uncommon and therefore more impactful upon manifestation (included in the 15 certificate version, they make events in the arena seem more visceral). In contrast, Capitol life is artificial; the pre-game festivities are produced, and giant screens relay betting markets for the benefit of already wealthy residents, who wear extravagant attire and hide their faces with make-up. The filmmakers rightfully abstain from going down a commercial route though, instead engraving the tournament as an antidote of perverse enjoyment for Capitol civilians. After all, “it’s a television show” according to Haymitch, one of Katniss’ few allies, himself flawed as a result of the Games: his heart promotes authenticity, but his head is hampered by alcohol.

Woody Harrelson balances Haymitch’s principle-jousting effectively and appears to be having a blast in the process. As does Elizabeth Banks, playing Effie Trinket, an eternally positive Capitol export whose drastic appearance and bubbly mindset do not connotate evilness as much as they do ignorance. Rather, malevolence froths from Donald Sutherland’s President Snow. Delivering a performance of poise, Sutherland compels the audience to detest Snow more and more with every muttering. Josh Hutcherson is solid as Peeta Mellark, though he does sporadically tow the corny line. A nod must also go to Stanley Tucci, whose Caesar Flickerman is the face of the Capitol, an ebullient television presenter. Tucci injects so much charisma that it’s difficult to dislike Caesar, though your teeth will grit upon hearing his pronunciation of the “Hungaaa Games”.

The film does suffer slightly from a quite lethargic middle act, particularly as it comes on the back a swift and purposeful opening. Throughout many of the training centre scenes, there’s a less-than-sure ambience and events begin to meander. We know Peeta is in the shadow of Katniss, no need for him to explain it over the dinner table. In comparison, the outing’s conclusion feels rushed, almost as if the filmmakers can’t wait to end proceedings and move onto the second instalment.

The Hunger Games is a decisive franchise opener. Shepherded by an accomplished lead performance, the film tackles issues carrying present day prominence in a manner feasible to most audiences. Like an arrow through an apple, Katniss must be emphatic when striking an enemy whose guard is down, when they’re not paying attention. They mightn’t be watching, but you should.

The Hunger Games - Katniss

Images credit: IMP Awards, What Culture

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate