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 Wolf of Wall Street (2014)

★★★★

Director: Martin Scorsese

Release Date: December 25th, 2013 (US); January 17th 2014 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Comedy; Crime

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie

It’s their fifth director/actor collaboration and The Wolf of Wall Street may well be Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio at their most exuberant. This maniacal tale of excess drowns in a flood of alcohol, showers in a plethora of drugs and embezzles in enough debauchery, sex and controversy to last a lifetime, although probably not a Jordan Belfort lifetime. Yet, in spite of the countless unsavouries on display, there’s a hint of caution lingering. A moment of thought, of silent consideration. It’s only a whisper though, nothing more — caution is perhaps the only trait lacking throughout the film.

Is The Wolf of Wall Street, then, glorifying a repulsive glut-based culture? Perhaps for over two and a half hours, yes. You laugh, guffaw even, when a damning head shake should suffice. That is until a line of blood trickles down one character’s forehead, when perspective and sense reign supreme. Maybe not from Jordan Belfort or any other money-gorging lackey at his disposal. Rather, from Scorsese himself, who subtly denounces the previously lauded mounds of greed and subsequently, masterfully, ties this disastrous party in a bow of warning.

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the kind of guy who would strut into a room full of more experienced heads and immediately present himself as bigger and as better. In fact, shortly after a Black Monday layoff, Belfort does exactly that as he aggressively and successfully makes an impressive sale in his new job as part of a small brokerage firm. This sale, or in layman’s terms customer manipulation, is the catalyst for Belfort’s booming career, one that sees himself and partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) set up their own financial consultancy business that, funded by immorality, skyrockets the pair to monetary heaven.

From the outset, The Wolf of Wall Street positions itself as relentless and indulgent, maintaining those tonal traits throughout, effectively, its entirety. Excess is the mantra, limits are ostracised. Belfort narrates in a gloating manner not too far removed from, “Hey, look at all this crazy, hilarious shit we got up to!” Animals are paraded, devoured. Women are either reduced to objects solely to aid the male desire, or are rendered forever in debt to their gender opposites. At one point Belfort bellows, “I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich!” absolutely believing his own deplorable motto. Yet, in all its apparent glorification of the obscene — a glorification that has attracted waves of controversy in some parts — the film never dawns a disguise. Scorsese, and perhaps he has earned to right to do so, goes that bit further. Of course there’s distaste galore, how could there not be given we are seeing the world through Belfort’s eyes? The film is not a bait-and-switch — this isn’t a narrative presently neutrally, one which then props up one or two flailing dubious remarks. Far from it. The cards are on the table from the off, boisterous cards without question, but the only cards possible.

What then, of the unadulterated humour that often floods the screen? If these obscenities playing out before us are so hideous, uncaring and self-centred, why are they presented comically — or better yet, why are we laughing along? Primarily, you laugh because it’s difficult not to get caught up in it all; in the madness, the chaos, the highs… and that’s the point. Belfort’s story is a journey of ever increasing lavishness (if his sewage ran dollar-full, nobody would bat an eyelid) and there is so much surplus residue that realistic comprehension becomes ridiculous — “It was a madhouse,” says the ringleader, and it most certainly was. Quaalude binges at work. Customer misguidance at work. Chimpanzees at work. Less-romantic-than-animalistic group interactions at work. We meet FBI agent Patrick Denham investigating the dodgy dealings on Wall Street, and sure enough our disbelieving minds are served another shocking reminder, one that puts beyond doubt the main reason why we are recession-hit. These insanities are just that, yet they’re quickly glossed either with a witty one-liner that you chuckle at, or an utterly hilarious hum ritual simultaneously employed by everyone in a crowded room. Terrence Winter’s screenplay is at times uncompromisingly funny, often because it adheres to Belfort’s drastic lifestyle and blends vibrantly with Scorsese’s scoping direction.

Significantly though, the film does not condone its characters’ actions. Without giving too much away, Belfort’s status during the final twenty minutes ensures that his previous shenanigans are not to be heralded triumphantly, perhaps not even by the man himself. After loudly depicting his life of riches and numerous abnormal behaviours, the screen displays Belfort’s resultantly crippled existence. Yet it’s worth noting that the film refrains from divulging an absolute stance in its final scene; after two and a half hours incessantly shoving overabundance down your throat, Scorsese rightly lets the audience take for themselves that which they so desire — incidentally, the film is an 18 certificate, and surely any sensible adult would regard the on screen depictions as probably funny in the moment, but then even more wrong in reflection.

Matthew McConaughey looks set to pick up the Best Actor gong at this year’s Academy Awards for an incredible performance in Dallas Buyers Club, and he has a cameo here where the Texan gives an eccentric diatribe so oddly humorous that its seven and a half minute length races by. The speech sets the scene for what is to come, crudely summed up in three words: “Fuck the clients.” On the other end of said speech is the man McConaughey is likely to trump at the Oscars, Jordan Belfort himself, Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio’s portrayal is awards-worthy, without doubt. From that first rampant manipulative sell he has the audience in the palm of his hands, unwittingly eating and then repentantly spitting out his soup of excess. Belfort is a dick; nuances such as talking down to the phone and beaming at the camera confirm exactly that. Somewhat surprisingly then, DiCaprio manages to keep you engaged in his aura just enough. It’s not that you ever like him, or that you feel sorry for him at any point. Yet DiCaprio ensures that there would be never any doubting a pleading second helping from the audience, even if Belfort sold you an initial injustice.

Jonah Hill’s acting stock ascends further up the ladder (no pun intended) as he once again proves his dramatic and comedic worth. The opposite of Belfort’s slick demeanour, Donnie is brash and instantly uncontrollable. If it weren’t for his gleaming teeth, you’d be certain that he’d kissed a few asses in his day. Hill is even better here than in Moneyball, where his underplayed wit is substituted for full on abrasion. Margot Robbie is Naomi, Belfort’s mistress and later wife, and she holds her own in a display of smutty elegance. As Swiss banking extraordinaire Jean-Jacques Saurel, Jean Dujardin combats Belfort’s booming ego with an even more pompously narcissistic mindset. Kyle Chandler solidly plays aforementioned FBI agent Patrick Denham and the narrative flirts with this idea that, on another day, Denham could’ve been a Jordan Belfort. However, this intriguing notion is regrettably gobbled up by the monstrous endeavours on show when, on another day, it might’ve played a bigger role.

Denham’s undervaluation is slightly disappointing, although like many other potential complications, his infrequent presence in a way adds to the overbearing message of excess. For example, problems such as the finance-driven plot becoming too difficult to consume and to follow, along with the superfluous length of the film, both drive home the exuberant attitude on display. Even the series of infomercials (Jordan Belfort’s Straight Line) all add to this inherently consumerist ideology. Another nit-picky annoyance that occasionally rears centres on editing. In particular, one glaringly obvious mishap occurs during the now notoriously funny Quaalude-incapacitating scene, where a set of stairs intermittently grows and shrinks in size. Maybe noticing that kind of sparing mistake is an indication that the action on screen has lost you which, for once, is accurate. The joke isn’t all that funny and this is a shame considering how well DiCaprio frustratingly manoeuvres.

The controversy surrounding this latest Martin Scorsese romp is unjust, or at least unnecessary. While the film does, to a degree, glorify the antics of its morally hideous protagonist played exceptionally well by Leonardo DiCaprio, the final few scenes denounce rather than herald all that has come before. Funny, rapturous, and although hampered by one or two problems of over excessiveness, the film delivers with punch. If The Wolf of Wall Street was a pen ready for sale, Scorsese would have me buying paper. Lots of it.