Most of the time, you don't go into a big-budget ensemble action movie thinking that the film will be extremely character-driven. There are exceptions to that rule, of course, with films like Guardians of the Galaxy or Tombstone (to reach back a couple decades) that give you both serious and funny moments for the main characters - even when there are several - while still providing the major action you're expecting. Suicide Squad can be added to that list with ease. Despite the major action sequences and the focus on the over-the-top elements of the film in the marketing, this is undoubtedly character (and actor) driven, and it's incredibly fun because of that, and in spite of some flaws.
Note: There will be no spoilers in this review.
The chief complaint about the DC Extended Universe so far has been a lack of fun and funny - in fact, a lack of smiles all around. Well, this movie takes care of that, early on. The dynamic between these incredibly disparate core characters: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Deadshot (Will Smith), Killer Croc (Adawale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Katana (Karen Fukuhara), and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is instantaneous. From the moment they get their conditional release and suit up in their respective crime-committing gear (remember, these are the bad guys, in case that wasn't drilled into your head enough from the PR campaign), they start to simultaneously gel and slam against one another. They act like a longstanding group of friends, who kind of hate each other. It's a perfect and unique dynamic, and it pours off every moment on the screen.
That dynamic has been a large focus during press for the film, as the cast prepped for the movie for 6 weeks with their director David Ayer before shooting a single frame, something he said he did to try to establish that family-esque dynamic as quickly as possible, and the actors said it did just that. It's also representative of the surprise theme of the film (family), which is core to most of the characters. Harley's looking for some kind of familial belonging; Deadshot is trying to protect his daughter; Diablo's family drives his need for redemption; Katana's husband drives her sense of honor. Giving these characters, admitted killers and in many cases psycho-or-sociopaths, a relatable heart is not an easy task, but it's something Ayer and his cast pull off with a seeming ease. They're the most relatable villains ever, and that's because they bothered to bring those elements in that many other ensembles ignore.
It doesn't hurt, either, that the cast - outside of being so likable in person or in interviews - also happen to be incredibly talented on screen. Will Smith is back at the top of his game, and can count this film as one of his best performances. He has such a presence on screen that whether he's facing down a hero or leader or showing off his own leadership skills, he's aces all around. His fighting sequences show a hint of his Ali past mixed with insane gunplay, too. Margot Robbie, as many expected, is a scene-stealer with her take - the first ever live-action one - on Harley Quinn. "The Joker's Robin" a title-card describes her as, though she's obviously more than that, as she's also his paramour, and daresay his actual love. That's a strange word to use in conjunction with the Joker, yes, but it may be true here, and more on that in a moment. Jay Hernandez has an incredible emotional weight to carry for the film, and it wouldn't work at all without his portrayal. Jai Courtney is hilarious, Karen Fukuhara is intense (and a little scary) and emotes incredibly for someone stuck under a hard ceramic mask, Kinnaman plays a great straight man, Akinnuoye-Agbaje has probably the best one-liner in the film, and Viola Davis as Amanda "The Wall" Waller is arguably the most intimidating single figure in a comicbook movie ever - look out, Nick Fury, if The Wall comes for you. Even Ben Affleck and Ezra Miller's cameos as Batman and The Flash are pitch-perfect (Batman delivers a perfect Batman line that will have longtime fans thrilled). If there's a stand-out scene in the film that demonstrates nearly all of this, it's the bar scene shown in the trailers. About a 7-minute bit, it shows humor, heart, tearful sadness, and unites the characters perfectly. I felt like I could watch two hours of them sitting in that bar joking around and opening up to each other.
Jared Leto's Joker has been extremely anticipated as well, of course, and his take is very different. There's more subtlety and nuance to this Joker. While he revels in moments of insanity, there also seems to be something nagging at him, pulling at him. There's an emptiness to this character that hasn't been explored on the big screen yet. This is the first Joker that I could see sitting down with Batman for a conversation, like the one that comic creators Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo recently portrayed, with the two, both slightly amnesiac, chatting on a park bench. He could just as soon flip and brutally murder hundreds, don't get me wrong, but that nuance is intense and welcomed. I think of this Joker as a mix between that of Batman: The Animated Series and the Joker graphic novel by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo, with a little added heart and a sense that at some point, he wasn't always this way. It's fascinating, and I definitely want to see more of it.
The only disappointment, then, comes in the fairly light plot: "Assemble to stop a supernatural threat... and do so," and the main villain development. While there is some backstory for the villains that gives us a bit of that same family element, and I can see where they were trying to go with it, not enough of that weight actually makes it on screen. When you have seven main protagonists to serve, it's naturally going to be difficult to raise the antagonist to the same level, but it's a definite weak spot in the film. There are also a few incredibly cheesy moments and lines, things that will make the average audience member groan, but do fit right into the superhero comicbook style.
Suicide Squad is the fun, action-packed movie DC Comics fans have been waiting for, delivering two hours of great quips, crazy action sequences, a pitch-perfect Harley Quinn, and other actors stepping swiftly and easily into their roles. Its flaws will bother some more than others - comicbook fans? You won't have to worry. Moviegoers less familiar with this structure or being introduced to these characters for the first time will still find so much great character work that the flaws should be able to be overlooked in favor of a good time at the movies. It's crazy, sexy, funny, but most of all full of heart - several elements that the DC Films universe needed sooner rather than later. Ultimately, I left smiling, thinking and talking about the individual characters more than even the action, and wanting more. Whether that's in a full team sequel, solo movies for several of the characters, appearances by them in heroes' movies, I just hope this cast gets to continue building their world, and sooner rather than later.
Suicide Squad is in theaters August 5, 2016.
4 out of 5 stars.