Suicide Squad (2016)


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.

Independence Day (1996)


Independence Day PosterDirector: Roland Emmerich

Release Date: July 3rd, 1996 (US); August 9th, 1996 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman

Two years before his monstrous monstrosity Godzilla, Roland Emmerich hit the streets of Washington DC to tackle an alien invasion. Time — and a great deal more effort — would go on to prove extraterrestrial superiority over the giant lizard, though that’s not a particularly astounding declaration. Just how effective is Independence Day? If popcorn-munching and Coke Zero-slurping is your kind of thing then the global disaster flick works a treat. Don’t expect any intellectual poise for there’s hardly an ounce to be had. But that’s not a problem — you wouldn’t show up to Comic-Con looking for a Jane Eyre panel. Emmerich zaps many of the right notes here and, despite the modern datedness of a visual palette once heralded as ground breaking, Independence Day cajoles along boisterously.

The unexpected arrival of alien spaceships only a few days premature of July 4th sends the United States into disarray. Major cities are under immediate threat causing the peoples within them to scatter. With less than a spoonful of hope to consume, President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) finds himself seeking aid from somewhat unconventional sources; specifically, ambitious pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith) and nutty computer expert David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum).

Technology finds its way into the heart of on-screen antics more often than not. Alien or otherwise, this is sort of a love letter to technological innovation. The grandiose ships planted neatly above cityscapes not only hover with pristine accuracy, they also completely wipe out the land below with bellowing power. It’s technological warfare and the otherworldly beings have the upper hand, even when it comes to pertinent human made artefacts. (“They’re using our satellites against us.”)

But this appreciation of and for innovation speaks to a higher purpose relayed across the exceedingly long two and a half hours. Though the implementation is fairly blasé in terms of a ponderous deficit in depth, the film does propose the age-old alien versus human musing that has captured the imagination of pop culture since Neil Armstrong and of cinema since Stanley Kubrick, more or less. Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin’s script struggles to delve anywhere past the glossy surface — in truth, it can be really glossy — but the vigilant thinkers amongst us are still able to briefly consider some interesting possibilities as events roll across the screen.

Initially, we’re fed a distinct juxtaposition: disparate humans manifest, from the amusing to the serious to the disbelieving, whereas the stoic extraterrestrials are collectively brooding and sophisticated. It’s not until further down the heavily destroyed road that similarities strike; aliens, though technologically adept, can be just as frail as humanity. The suggestion of familiarity is intriguing but it doesn’t receive enough focus to fully unravel.

That’s because Independence Day rockets along with energy and sappy joy. Let’s be honest: the President’s Independence Day speech is amiably absurd, even more so than preceding the alien invasion. (“Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom.”) This mightn’t boast the scholarly prowess of a 2001 or even the tingling tension of an Alien, but it does come armed with fun and humour. Maybe it’s simply the childhood beer-goggles still clouding my judgement 15 years on, however it seems like the 90s was a time for chaos and frantic comedy on the silver screen. I’m thinking Space Jam. Jurassic Park. Home Alone. These films each share the same semblance of bumbling pandemonium as Independence Day, a trait that is rather infectious.

Admittedly, it is true that the quartet of aforementioned films come equipped with the stock aloof goof. We’ve essentially got two here, though Jeff Goldblum’s David Levinson is a tad more measured than his father Julius. (“‘All you need is love’ — John Lennon, smart man… shot in the back.”) The two bounce off each other with amusing distrust yet above the familial cabin fever, they’re a healthy duo and probably the best characters. Will Smith is as charismatic as ever, it’s the lack of well-roundedness that lets him down. His character Steven Hiller, along with most others, suffers from genericism syndrome. At least the guys fare better than the girls, the few of whom don’t have an awful lot to do.

Granted, this isn’t a spectacular examination of the human psyche or anything, it’s pure entertainment with a spectacular visual array. Unfortunately almost 20 years has passed and this once award winning ocular jigsaw has become penetrable. There are a number of clunky moments — the tunnel fireball stands out — but it’d be unfair to criticise a film for ageing.

One area that ought to attract some denunciation though is the prevailing lack of threat, an element that is sorely needed in order to usher in the full effect of disaster. There’s hardly any depth to the story, nor is there any strand of worry interwoven throughout proceedings which is odd given we watch the decimation of huge cities. Personal anxiety should arise, but never really does. Exposing the audience to so much carnage early on sanitises the remainder of the film — we know the worst has come and gone and the characters themselves aren’t really worth investing in, thus there is no obvious agent of emotion to clutch dearly.

Nevertheless, that is not Independence Day’s primary prerogative. Emmerich directs a film that should command greater emotional gravitas given the velocity of proceedings, but when push comes to shove this does what it sets out to do with exuberance and laughter. In fairness, compared to Godzilla, this is Citizen Kane.

Independence Day - Smith and Goldblum

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

After Earth (2013)

After Earth PosterDirector: M. Night Shyamalan

Release Date: May 31st, 2013 (US); June 7th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Jaden Smith, Will Smith

M. Night Shyamalan has a grand idea. His mind urging him forth, he embarks upon creating a film shepherded by characters who are inherently devoid of emotion. It’s not that emotional attachment is hard to come by, rather, that these people strive valiantly to become absolutely emotionally detached. An inspired scheme. Someone give the Academy a call. Only, hold the phone for a moment. A bunch of characters whose individual and collective M.O. is to be uninterested and, subsequently, uninteresting? I digress, our gallant director must have a couple of top actors lined up who’ll be able to effectively balance this indifference with microscopic poignancy. Is that the Academy on hold- wait a minute. Will Smith, a quintessential purveyor of emotion — be it comedic or dramatic — and his extremely unseasoned son, are our emotionless duo? Who wrote this thing? Ah.

Unable to harness his impassioned outbursts, Kitai (Jaden Smith) is rejected by the cadets. He’s physically capable, but an inability to ‘ghost’ — hide one’s feelings in order to battle the Ursas, creatures that can smell fear — puts a dampener on Kitai’s attempts to impress his father Cypher (Will Smith). The pair share a disgruntled relationship that is a product of Cypher’s long stays away from home and Kitai’s self-condemning attitude in regard to his sister’s death. Midway through a family bonding trip, their spacecraft crashes on the now uninhabited Earth, leaving Cypher injured and Kitai as the duo’s only chance of survival.

An Ursas is loose and Kitai must repress emotion. Prepare for 100 minutes awkwardly depicting a person’s attempt to be boring. This premise is After Earth’s most debilitating problem, of which there are many. Renowned for his twists, we’re crying out for an M. Night Shyamalan tide-turner in the face of events that struggle to spark and ultimately dissolve into a sea of monotony. Devoid of any nuances designed to connect character and viewer, the film tries to infuse heaps of sentiment by way of inventing a dramatic predicament; the crash forces an incapacitated father to rely on his son who is mentally unequipped for the dangers ahead. But straight away this concept flails without emotional gravitas. There’s no tension as happenings are hampered by a lack of realism: surrounded by an almost universally dead crew, it’s inconceivable that Kitai would escape a plane crash without so much as a skin laceration. Heck, even dad Cypher’s broken leg sounds pretty welcoming considering he has just been zapped by whirling turbulence. (Always wear your seat belt kids.) After Earth is as diluted as science-fiction gets, plain-tasting and without scope. Look away now Stanley.

Neither Will nor Jaden is afforded much in the way of a relatable character, but the senior Smith should know better. Cypher does a lot of sensing — a trait that seems to come with the reticent territory from which he spawns — and it’s a shame that Will was unable to sense just how hopeless After Earth promised to be before putting pen to contract. In this sense the actors are more idiotic than their characters, but it’s not a foregone conclusion by any means. At one point, junior notices that a significant portion of his breathing equipment has been destroyed and opts not to tell senior. Why? Who knows? Maybe it’s because he’s scared of his father’s reaction to wasted Jammie Dodgers. At least by lying Kitai is awake and therefore offering some sort of interaction with the audience rather than sleeping, a popular action of his that consumes at least half of the runtime and subsequently jars an already wobbly narrative flow. Though in fairness, if it wasn’t for an inordinate amount of caffeine, he mightn’t have been the only one dozing. Perhaps I should have indulged in some of Cypher’s painkillers – y’know, the tablets that he decides not to take for fear of drowsiness before succumbing to his unconscious anyway?

There’s an overbearing sense of woodenness going on too, and it’s not simply the vast array of trees that now cover an unpopulated Earth. Everything is very mechanical: the way people walk, the way people speak, and especially the way people act. Will and Jaden were authentic as a pair in The Pursuit of Happyness, their family connection purveyed with total wholeheartedness. In that outing we believed in them as father and son, not simply because that is reality, but because the two transferred their reality to the screen in a genuine manner. Here, it’s difficult to gain sight of this beneficial legitimacy as two poorly construed characters terminally intrude, along with a script that occasionally has us reconsidering The Phantom Menace for Best Original Screenplay (“I will guide you, it’ll be like I’m right there with you,” says assured father to timid son).

In seeking emotionless vigour, both Will and Jaden act as if they’ve just been told that McDonald’s is out of Big Macs whilst incurring the wrath of a food-demanding hangover; faces unwaveringly sorrowful, eyebrows lapsing and pupils heavy, emotionless but also purposeless. Next time nobody ought to invite Tony Montana over to any script-writing sessions, then we might see a film with dialogue that hasn’t been tanned by a machine gun. Cypher informs Kitai, “You are not a ranger,” before ordering his non-ranger son around a little more, probably in a similar vein to that which he instructs his rangers. These holes devour our lead actors and leave them stranded, unable to escape. It’s worth noting that there are one or two faint bids at humour, chuckle-inducing to a point, but gags that primarily urge us to contemplate the reasoning behind Shyamalan’s decision to present his piece with such a dreary and serious tone in the first place — a tone that, it turns out, doesn’t succeed in being all that serious anyway.

This recipe for disaster might boast a visual sheen that is moderately impressive — if not invariably cut-and-paste when it comes to Mordor-esque volcanoes — but it tanks in every other department. There are bad films, however there aren’t too many $130 million bad films. After Earth scores high in said category and, given its lofty price tag, that’s pretty unforgivable.

After Earth - Jaden

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures