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.

Terminator Genisys (2015)

★★

Terminator Genisys PosterDirector: Alan Taylor

Release Date: July 1st, 2015 (US); July 2nd, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Arnold Schwarzenegger

Every once in a while, Terminator Genisys springs a countdown clock on us. Bad things will happen, we’re told, when it hits zero. If you are in any way familiar with how films work, you will know that countdowns often hit zero at the end of movies, and that is true again here. Suddenly those bad things look more appealing. For an hour and a half, Thor: The Dark World director Alan Taylor’s reboot is robotic in all the wrong ways. It’s frustrating, because the final act somewhat harkens back to the great action of past instalments. But by then it’s too late — time’s up.

In getting under way, we retread a backstory recognisable to viewers who have visited the franchise before. It goes on for ages, but Kyle Reese’s (Jai Courtney) words are at least visually supplemented by some advanced Star Wars-meets-Transformers combat. We’re then introduced to future John Connor (or current, semantics pending), played fairly well by Jason Clarke. Trying his best to conclude the exposition heavy prelude, Connor makes a big deal out of why it should be Reese he sends back in time to stop an evil Terminator, as opposed to any other schmuck. But his interrogation follows a scene in which the pair cement their infallible trust and comradeship. Why wouldn’t it be Reese?

This unnecessary friction exemplifies what soon becomes a full on screenplay pandemic — the creation of narrative falsehoods and conveniences lazily employed in order to move the plot forward (or sideways, or backwards, depending on which time zone or dreamscape we’re lost in). And it’s not just us who are confused. The characters do their fair share of head-scratching too: “That’s the kind of guy your son was… is… will be. Jesus!” bellows Reese as he attempts to tell Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) about her son who both has, and has not, been born yet.

The story is all over the place but it essentially boils down to Sarah, Reese and classic Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) trying to save the world. Co-writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier seem hell-bent on expunging the franchise’s mythology entirely, though their efforts ultimately produce a convoluted product. The former had better luck penning the evasive Shutter Island, but the layers of plot are excessive here and the film misses seemingly obvious details as a result. For example, there are four different Skynet bots at large: two Arnies — one good, one bad — a T-1000 policeman whose existence in 1984 is never fully explained (though his sword-like arm is at least a nifty nod to Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and John Connor, sort of. Maybe.

Caught up in the myriad of goings-on are infrequent thematic throwbacks to classic Terminator lore; the increasingly intrusive threat posed by machines, humanity’s greed for untested technological advancement. However not enough time is afforded to any of this meaty material. It is possible that scenes containing Dayo Okeniyi’s Genisys-creating Danny Dyson, son of Judgment Day’s Miles Dyson who also appears, were cut. As things stand his lack of on screen engagement is quite embarrassing. We never really find out about the character’s mindset, or his motives for developing the technology. Apparently the answer to everything is ‘sequel’.

Resultantly, the Genisys program presents itself as nothing more than an iffy iCloud. “This is the world now. Plugged in. Logged on.” That’s as incisive as it gets. The dumbing down of this once prescient franchise is something we probably should have expected given Paramount’s willingness to trade middle act surprises for better marketing traction. If you’ve seen the trailer — and we all have, it has been everywhere — the John Connor revelation is no longer a shocker. Connor is involved in a shocking moment though: his declaration that it probably won’t matter if Sarah Connor dies essentially undermines the entire franchise. If Jurassic World was overly respectful towards its elders, Terminator Genisys couldn’t really give a toss.

Taylor’s direction puts more emphasis on comedy than before. The move is misjudged, but not without merit. You get the sense the film is trying to be too Marvel-esque, too witty, when both The Terminator and Judgment Day both succeeded by being rooted in apocalyptic reality. Snappy lines detract from weighty stakes. It can be quite funny — Clarke and Schwarzenegger have amusing chemistry — but the missed gags do occasionally stick out like a mechanical limb. These characters, unlike the Avengers, haven’t yet earned the right to be funny in a life or death situation.

Unfortunately, the characters simply don’t get by via their iconography. Arnie does because it’s the same actor playing the same role, and he’s actually good fun. The others wear iconic names but they carry unrecognisable attributes. We’re told this is a different Sarah Connor and it’s true. Just not a better one. She is too outgoing, too friendly, too accessible. Though Emilia Clarke makes a decent stab at invoking the steely-eyed persistence of Linda Hamilton, the character is generic. Very little of everything and nothing in particular.

At one point Reese informs Sarah, “Me unlocking your cuffs doesn’t make you less capable,” but neither of them are all that capable to begin with. Both Clarke and Jai Courtney are given virtually impossible tasks. Courtney in particular struggles to overcome the shoddiness of his bland action man. It would be nice to see him in something other than one of these wafer-thin gun-toting roles (Suicide Squad is a dice throw at present). Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons is good as the alcoholic, downtrodden detective, rising above another of the movie’s stock personas.

Despite this plethora of misgivings, Terminator Genisys does conjure up an entertaining final thirty minutes. The action never quite reaches the pulpy, adrenaline-fuelled antics of James Cameron’s outings, but there are welcome pockets of grit. Calling upon Speed — a single-decker bus, female driver, large bridge, inability to slow down — the film switches up the intensity with visual flair. By the final scenes, we are reluctantly along for the ride and the humour subsequently works, acting as a refreshing blast of energy between the hard and heavy battles. A Bad Boys mugshot sequence is inspired.

People applauded as the credits rolled in my screening, so somebody must have done something right. Maybe this is a super-smart critique of sluggish blockbuster reboots. T-3000 John Connor talks about the Sarah he remembers, and maybe he is referring to the Sarah of Judgment Day. Maybe this film is set in an alternate reality where all the characters are diluted on purpose, and the plot points are nonsensical by design. Probably not. Terminator Genisys is as messy as its calamitous title suggests.

Terminator Genisys - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

★★

Director: John Moore

Release Date: February 14th, 2013 (UK and US)

Genre: Action; Crime; Thriller

Starring: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney

If Jai Courtney wasn’t a younger, less-bald Bruce Willis he probably wouldn’t have been part of A Good Day to Die Hard. Similarly, if Live Free or Die Hard hadn’t scooped up almost $400 million at the box office, six years later we wouldn’t have to sit through this shallowest of John McClane sequels. A total horror-show it ain’t, but apparently some people don’t think cricket is boring and most of us hate that. After a long journey extending all they back to terror in the tower in 1988, there has been a severe breakdown at stop five. Though after two and a half decades spent invariably recycling old material, what more d’you expect?

A less capable, more cigar-and-newspaper-on-a-Sunday-morning appearing John McClane (Bruce Willis) travels to Russia upon hearing that his son has had a run-in with the law having been arrested for an assassination attempt. In reality, Jack (Jai Courtney) is an undercover CIA agent working to bring down dangerous and corrupt government official, Viktor Chagarin, although John doesn’t realise this, probably because of that age thing. An explosion coordinated by Chagarin during the resultant trial allows Jack and whistle-blower Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) to escape custody, and chaos ensues.

The film is stuck between trying too hard to be slyly comedic on one hand and a serious action flick on the other. The original Die Hard got this mix spot on, mainly because the premise was ridiculously exciting, Willis looked interested and Alan Rickman delivered one of the finest villainous performances in recent cinema history. Here the narrative is a poorly executed mess and Willis looks like a guy who has randomly invaded a film set while on his holidays abroad, perhaps thinking it’s all part of a Russian cultural process. There are also more bad-guys on show than laughs, although having said that you’d be hard-pushed to exude more than a handful chuckles.

The plot then. Wearing more holes than an unending golf course, it doesn’t take long to induce a succession of wearisome head-shakes. After essentially saving the world throughout his previous four films, you’d expect John McClane to have a bit of know-how about him when it comes to dealing with machine-gun wielding terrorists. Apparently not anymore: his first conversation with Jack comes nonchalantly in the presence of bullets harpooning all over the place and the odd explosion going off. Ah, it’s probably to do with the age thing. There are far too many contrivances, the most notable being an endless progression of villains, each one ‘badder’ than the next. It gets so ludicrous that McClane himself to switching sides wouldn’t come as a total shock (hey, that sounds like a better film). I think son Jack gets it right as at one point he alludes to, “Making it up as we go”.

Sticking with Jai Courtney, he’s not a bad actor at all. In fact he’s fairly decent in this given the retched dialogue that’s being spluttered about: “But I’m your father”; “And I’m your daughter,” is probably the worst of a bad bunch that collectively cannot be saved by ‘knock, knock’ jokes or even former franchise favourites (“Yippee ki-yay…”). Willis’ spark as McClane is non-existent; the eccentric hero has turned charisma vacuum. Again the script really doesn’t help matters and there aren’t any outlandish sequences that give Willis the platform to be his glorious former action-star self, however the man simply looks like he really cannot be bothered with it all. One of the major let downs of the entire film is how little the super-talented Mary Elizabeth Winstead is utilised. McClane’s daughter was introduced in the previous outing and is relegated to a beginning and end cameo. Her only real contribution is offering McClane an ‘Idiot’s Travel Guide’ before his journey to Russia. That must be another age joke then. Given the lack of intuition on display, her scarcity is even more criminal.

On the plus side the action scenes do look great, having evolved to even grander scale this time around. In particular the helicopter scene at the end is excellently executed and actually gives the film a bit of oomph to clutch onto towards its climax. Unfortunately no visual escapade can save proceedings, and the only other glaring positive to take from A Good Day to Die Hard is that you only have to sit through an hour and a half before checking it off your list of films never to sit through again. The sheer disappointment stems from the franchise’s previous successes, principally the pleasantly surprising Live Free or Die Hard, and therefore there can be no excuses dealt in serving up this newest nonsense.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. On this evidence you can’t teach an old dog much else either. If only McClane had made do with living free, nevertheless, this is probably a good day for the Die Hard adventure to die hard.