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'Suicide Squad' is a deeply flawed comic book movie with a real vision

David Ayer ("End of Watch," "Fury") makes the first comic book movie that feels like it was made by a real artist.

‘Suicide Squad’
Director:
David Ayer
Stars: Will Smith, Margot Robbie
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Suicide Squad” is a renegade superhero movie, but not in the way you’d think. It’s been sold as the one where the heroes are baddies, just as “Guardians of the Galaxy” was the one that was kind of weird, “Ant-Man” was the one that was (sometimes) a comedy and “Deadpool” was the one that pretended to make fun of comic book movies but was still a comic book movie.

But what’s really unusual about “Suicide Squad” isn’t that it pushes the villains to center stage. It’s this: It’s the rare one that truly feels like it came from one person’s wackadoodle vision. In a genre all about protecting the brand and continuing increasingly convoluted mega-stories with too many moving parts, it plays more like the next film by David Ayer (“End of Watch,” “Fury”) than a franchise-builder — though, of course, it’s that, too.

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Whether that’s a good thing is another question. Ayer, who also wrote “Training Day,” makes macho movies that are sometimes so macho they become toxic roid rages. With “Fury” he seemed to finally calm down, refining his approach, finding a voice that wasn’t imitation Sam Peckinpah and other alpha male directors.

“Suicide Squad” continues this streak. Our crack team of second-tier DC Comics villains — ranging from Will Smith’s mega-hitman Deadshot to Margot Robbie’s super-psycho Harley Quinn to a guy who looks like a crocodile (Adewale Akinnyoye-Agbaje) — aren’t a blob of interchangeable, obnoxious hotheads, as in Ayer’s admirable yet unbearable “Sabotage.” Considering the horrific set stories — group therapy! shrooming actors! mailed live rats! — it’s amazing that they’re far from totally annoying.

Their adventure is simple, almost minimalist, at least for a comic book movie. It’s a badasses-on-a-mission romp — “The Dirty Dozen” only with a dude who can shoot fire (Jay Hernandez’s Diablo) and a swordswoman with a kintara that absorbs souls (Karen Fukuhara’s Tatsu). The team assembles, but only by force. They’ve been rounded up by Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, a manipulative government goon who wants to fight potential evil with actual evil. She has to keep them in check; before they’re dropped into an abandoned city to battle an honest-to-god witch (Cara Delevingne), they each have explosives implanted in their heads, which can be set off with an app should they prove “vexing.”

Much as “Suicide Squad” likes to be “fun” — with its classic rock soundtrack and Margot Robbie going whole hog maniac as she beats up men and smashes bubbly pod people — it’s also all about taking this seriously. It’s 70 percent a David Ayer film, but also 30 percent an annoying comic book movie that sometimes buckles under the pressure to sell a new franchise with many tentacles. It’s the second in DC’s version of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, meaning it has to pick up where “Batman v Superman” left off and shoe-horn in Ben Affleck’s Batman as well as Jared Leto’s Joker, now more mischief-maker than committed anarchist, rocking bling and grillz and generally seeming beamed in more out of contractual obligation than storytelling demands.

To his credit Ayer mostly makes it his, though not always. After an enjoyable half hour of character introduction, his script stumbles about like Inspector Clouseau to put them in action. Delavingne’s witch is a disappointingly rote villain, set on the umpteenth apocalypse. “This s—t is going to be like a chapter in the Bible,” someone crows.

And that’s the problem: Every comic book movie is about chapters in the Bible. “Suicide Squad” should have been the one where the menace is a little more modest, especially since Ayer is much more interested in characters than destruction. He films the over-sized climax with apparent disinterest, staging it in a warehouse sick with fog and dark lighting — a flurry of stuff you can barely see, killing time before the finish line.

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But when it sticks to the gang traversing destroyed urban locales or bantering or knocking back whiskey, it doesn’t feel corporate at all. It’s alternately sprightly and brooding, even smart. Ayer’s pet subject is finding the humanity in evil characters, and with “Suicide Squad” he arrives at a stance that could be classified as “It’s complicated.”It’s no novelty picture, where we get to root for the baddies, or even one where they simply become good. The bad guys are a rainbow of bad. Deadshot is the most likeable, and not just because he's played by Will Smith: He only wants to reunite with his young daughter. But even he doesn’t want to give up his game. Some (Harley Quinn, Jai Courtney’s good ol’ boy Boomerang) revel in their badness; others anguish over it. Hernandez’s mega-tatted El Diablo is beyond reluctant to unleash his powers, for it only comes from rage, and it was rage that once led him to accidentally kill his wife and kids.

That’s a bleak-o-rama backstory for a comic book movie, or any movie. Equally disarming is Davis’ Amanda Waller. Issuing threats in a blood-freezing monotone, shooting people soul-deadening stares,gunning down innocent FBI henchmen when they know too much, she’s arguably the baddest of the bad, and Davis proves the ensemble's MVP. But Ayer doesn’t judge her, or anyone. They’re allowed to remain complex; they aren’t softened for mainstream appeal.

What he doesn’t do is flaunt that as the movie’s main selling point. Ayer seems to really understand these characters. He wants to really empathize them, to really show them warts and all. This is a deeply flawed movie, where an eccentric director sometimes triumphs over genre expectations and other times loses. But even when it’s a clangy bore with arbitrary action, it’s the first comic book movie that feels like it came from an actual person.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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