There is a modest profundity to films like Suicide Squad. You know: The ones, such as The Dirty Dozen or Escape from New York, in which condemned anti-heroes are afforded a shot at redemptive valour, often by being strong-armed into a highly covert, extraordinarily dangerous mission from which they're not likely to return.
It's not unlike life. You either submit to death's cold inevitability or wring some nominal pleasure and meaning out of life's fateful absurdity. You either die or die trying.
Suicide Squad is very much the Dirty Dozen of the so-called "D.C. Extended Universe" – the nerdier, unrulier, yet far more interesting kid brother flailing in the shadows of the box-office-dominating Marvel Cinematic Universe of cape-and-cowl action movies.
The film sees a heartless, hard-nosed government operative (Viola Davis) wrangling a U.S. military hotshot (Joel Kinnaman) to lead a team of expendable super-villains on covert operations. Among the sprawling rogues' gallery are wisecracking hit man Deadshot (Will Smith), minxish psychotic Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), beer-swilling Aussie Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), superpowered gang-banger El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and the scowling Cajun mutant Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a reptilian-looking strongman who lives in a sewer. Together, they spend the film battling an ancient witch and punching pimply-headed goons who look like blackberries. It is, at the risk of understating it, very stupid.
Yet this sheer stupidity is Suicide Squad's greatest asset. It's sometimes easy to forget, given the measures of reverence they've been afforded in recent decades, that comic books are by and large totally stupid. Different mythologies and sensibilities scrape against one another. An extraterrestrial ubermensch teams up with a sad billionaire who misses his parents and a merman and a guy who can run very fast. The Norse god of thunder clashes against a green-skinned Mr. Hyde behemoth, while a svelte Russian spy roundhouse-kicks a sentient robot in the background. Despite their laborious efforts at coherence and continuity and "world-building," comic books are joyous and entertaining in part because they don't make a whole lot of sense.
Against the poker-faced grimness of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, and the boilerplate boringness of the Marvel movies, Suicide Squad – like Zack Snyder's truly astonishing Batman v Superman before it – is a film that doesn't seem to care if it comes across as totally idiotic, challenging the boundaries of believability.
Its opening act of exposition is an adrenaline-rush of economized action, painted in putrid neon hues that look like curdled cotton candy that's been left under a tanning bed. Watching Smith's Deadshot haggle a fee for a murder contract, or following the once-genteel Harley Quinn's descent into criminal madness under the tutelage of the Joker (Jared Leto, in a much ballyhooed role that shakes out to minimal actual screen time) is genuinely fun in a way that these movies often forget to be.
Regrettably, the film's place-setting opening lays the scene for a different, more exciting film that never really unfolds.
In one early sequence, Leto's maniacal crime boss lies amid a carefully arranged art installation of weapons and ammunition – painstakingly arranged by who, exactly? A demented psycho who dresses up as a clown and has the word "damaged" prominently tattooed on his forehead? It's a fitting image for Suicide Squad itself: a film that's all about controlled chaos, hamstrung as much by its family-friendly PG rating as its lapses into schlocky sentimentality and superhero-movie cliché.
When the film's overstuffed menagerie of bad guys and psychotics are working at the top of their game, and the film embraces the arch idiocy inherent in its premise – as when a flaming skeleton grapples with a giant wizard while a man-who-is-also-a-crocodile plants a bomb underneath them – Suicide Squad offers more unself-conscious fun than many of its more sombre, proudly joyless blockbuster brethren.
To borrow a phrase from professional oddball Weird Al, Suicide Squad may dare to be stupid. Just not stupid (or cynical, or absurd) enough.
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