MOVIE BUFF-ET: Solid cast keeps Suicide Squad from going too far off the tracks

Warner Bros.

When comic book writer John Ostrander retooled the 1960s DC Comics property Suicide Squad, his high concept was The Dirty Dozen with super villains.

With that thought in mind, director David Ayer translated Ostrander’s idea to a fair degree with the latest super-powered picture Suicide Squad. The first quarter of the movie follows the same structure director Robert Aldrich deployed in his classic war movie that promises amnesty for a gaggle of the U.S. Army’s worst convicts if they survive a suicide mission.

The film opens with a high-level discussion of a plan to use harden super-villains to carry out missions too deadly and too weird for normal operatives, pitched by tough-as-nails intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Vilola Davis). Then the members of the squad are introduced in a series of quick cut vignettes backed up with blaring rock and rap theme songs for each character.

We see Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) seduced by the Joker (Jared Leto) and captured by Batman (Ben Affleck). Likewise The Bat takes down assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), and the Flash (Ezra Miller) makes a quick cameo to capture Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney).

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It’s certainly meant to be homage to The Dirty Dozen, but the transitions are more than a bit jarring. The classic rock and rap tunes clash rather than work as connective tissue for the movie

From there, the new film makes a huge departure from its prime inspiration, and delves into a Ghostbusters territory. Zool and the Stay Puft Marshamallow Man don’t make cameos, but they would have fit.

Waller introduces and explains origin of the evil demi-goddess/sorceress the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She is to be the cornerstone of Task Force X, the Suicide Squad’s official title; however, the plan goes haywire when the Enchantress escapes and sets up super-natural shop in Midway City. Waller has no choice but to deploy the rest of the Suicide Squad under the direction of intelligence operative Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who just happens to be having an affair with The Enchantress’ alter ego, June Moon.

Each member of the squad is surly in his or her own distinct way, and they definitely are not team players, but they must find a way to work together to defeat the Enchantress or die trying. Making matters worse, the Joker is on the scene, attempting to rescue Harley.

The film has been described as everything from a mess to a dumpster fire by critics. Those descriptions are a bit harsh to me. It’s an average super-hero action flick. Entertaining enough, but nothing truly spectacular.

If you want to play the Marvel vs. DC game, it doesn’t touch the hem of Marvel’s better films, but I’d argue it’s better or in the same class of movies like Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and the Incredible Hulk. Each of those films has high points, too, but none truly fly.

Smith and Robbie are their charming selves as Deadshot and Harley Quinn, and Davis excels as Waller, tough enough to at least attempt to intimidate The Batman. Speaking of the Dark Knight, the scenes where he takes down Harley and Deadshot are two of the more faithful-to-the comics, live-action Batman scenes ever committed to film. It’s interesting to see Batman from the villains’ point of view.

Leto’s Joker may be in the eyes of the beholder. How tough of a job is it to follow Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson and Caesar Romero’s classic portrayals of the Clown Prince of Crime? Leto is menacing in the part, but his performance and particularly the character’s design left something to be desired. Supposedly more than a few Joker scenes were cut from the film. Maybe they will turn up on Blue-ray someday?

Perhaps the film’s biggest sin is that at various points in the movie, I felt like I was watching a video game as the characters advanced from one plateau to the next, facing greater and greater challenges as they moved toward an inevitable showdown with the Enchantress. It might be fun to some to play video games, but it can get a little tedious watching one.

Suicide Squad may or may not be the hit Warner Bros. had hoped it would be, but it’s not nearly as bad as some early reviews described it. Since one of Harley Quinn’s favorite weapons is a baseball bat, I’d say WB swung for the fences, but gutted out single with this picture.
For parents, the film is filled with video game-type violence, but little to no gore. It also has more profanity and of a harsher variety than one might expect from a film based on comic-book characters. But as Harley reminds, “We are the bad guys. It’s what we do.”

Grade: C+

Classic Corner

Red River

John Ford and John Wayne are tied at the hip in the minds of many Western movie fans, and no doubt, the two teamed to make some great ones from Stagecoach, in their first outing together in 1939, to The Searchers in 1956, a film considered by many as the best Western, and on to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence in 1962.

However, Wayne’s best performance may have come under the guidance of Howard Hawks in the 1948 Western Red River, which co-starred Montgomery Clift and Walter Brennan.

While the film isn’t as relevant today as Ford’s dark exploration of racism in The Searchers, it could be argued that The Searchers would never have been made if Hawks and Wayne hadn’t have fashioned such a complex and bitter character as Tom Dunson, the ruthless cattleman as the center of Red River. Wayne carried a bit of Dunson with him in all his Westerns that followed Red River.

Dunson is a harsh, ruthless man leading a make-or-break cattle drive on the Chisholm Trail. Dunson’s adopted son Matt (Clift) aides in leading the cattle drive, but they find themselves at odds when Matt interferes with Tom’s brutal brand of discipline with a cowhand.

Backed by the other cowboys, Matt takes over the cattle drive, forcing his adoptive father out. Before Tom leaves, he warns Matt, “Every time you turn around, expect to see me, because one time when you turn around, I’ll be there.”

Sure enough, the two do meet in one of the better showdowns in film history.

Clift’s performance is cool, while Wayne burns hot. The contrast is compelling. Brennan offers just the right amount of sarcasm and comic relief. It’s a great movie, not just a great Western.

Turner Classic Movies airs Red River, Saturday at 7 p.m. central as part of a daylong Montgomery Clift marathon, that includes Suddenly, Last Summer, The Misfits, The Search, A Place in the Sun, and From Here to Eternity among others.