David Ayer aims high but falls short with Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad has disappointed a number of critics as being less than the sum of its parts. After watching it, I tend to agree, particularly since director David Ayer had done two very entertaining ensemble movies prior to this – the well-received World War 2 film Fury and the critically massacred drug-enforcement-team-gone-bad action flick Sabotage – both of which I loved and wholeheartedly recommend. In fact, Sabotage had the kind of vibe that Suicide Squad should have had; it’s an R-rated film with gratuitous violence and unlikable characters – exactly what was missing from Suicide Squad. Not surprising…while Sabotage was an independent production, Suicide Squad is from a large corporation, namely Warner Bros. and I guess some studio execs didn’t have the courage to do with the movie what Fox did with Deadpool earlier this year., i.e. give it an R rating. Even though Deadpool is part of Fox’s X-Men universe, the studio had no trouble making an edgy, R-rated film for grown ups, being quite clear that the film was meant for a very different audience quadrant compared to the kid-friendly X-Men films.

Suicide Squad on the other hand, takes two steps forward and then retreats a step. Instead of portraying a team of hardened death-row criminals, who are in fact the biggest foes of the Justice League superheroes, we end up with a team of social misfits who all appear to have hidden hearts of gold.

Take Will Smith’s character for instance. He plays Floyd Lawton, aka Deadshot, the world’s deadliest marksman who never misses; an assassin for hire. The writers have picked one particular storyline from the comic books in which Deadshot has an estranged daughter who he cares for. In the movie, this daughter and his need to do right by her becomes a big part of his character. What could have been a really kick-ass anti-hero/ supervillain instead became Will Smith playing some misunderstood guy with a heart of gold. I can well imagine Will Smith or his reps insisting that his character be given these redeeming qualities in order to protect his future box office potential and public persona.

Another key character, the psychotic criminal Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) starts off very convincingly as the former prison shrink who is the lover and accomplice of the Joker. In fact, Robbie has done an outstanding job with the character, but towards the end there is once again an attempt to give her a softer side and some emotional bond with the rest of the Squad, which really jars with her character traits upto that point.

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Harley Quinn and Deadshot are inmates at the Belle Reve Penitentiary for supervillains. They along with a few others (Killer Croc, El Diablo, Captain Boomerang) are offered a partial amnesty by shadowy government operative Amanda Waller in return for joining a black ops team to combat possible metahuman attacks (her logic being that the next Superman need not be a good guy). In fact, as is so often the case with the US government, it is one of their own ‘creations’, the ancient witch named Enchantress, who goes rogue and ends up creating havoc across several city blocks. The squad is assembled under the leadership of an Army special forces officer named Rick Flagg and off they go. After many predictable action scenes, the squad members have a chance to escape but instead choose to ‘do the right thing’ and save the city.

In return for a job well done, they are put back into Belle Reve, with the only hope of getting out of solitary confinement being their willingness to volunteer for a future black ops mission.

The Joker, played by Jared Leto, had promised to make a big impact in the movie. Although he does have reasonable screen time and is chilling in an early scene with a gangster in a night club, the character soon becomes part of the background noise once the action begins.

I also had a problem with the soundtrack, which was filled wall to wall with many recognizable hits from the past. I know this approach was pulled off with great aplomb by James Gunn in Guardians of the Galaxy, but in general I don’t have much respect for this sort of ‘lazy composing’. I found it somewhat condescending, as if the dumb audience needs the song to understand the underlying theme/ tone/ message of a particular scene.

In spite of all the criticism, I actually found the movie reasonably entertaining. It was, as we Indians say, a typical ‘masala movie’, or in western parlance, a ‘popcorn flick’. Just laugh along at the slightly predictable jokes, sit through the fight scenes that blur into each other and every now and then, you are rewarded with a genuinely well choreographed sequence or smart punch line. In particular, I enjoyed the cameos from a couple of Justice League members.

Overall, a case of too many characters and too much ambition being squeezed into the confines of a two hour film.


Star Trek Beyond – Justin Lin keeps the series flying high

In 2006, Taiwanese-born director Justin Lin was tapped to direct the 3rd installment in the Fast and Furious series. The big stars Paul Walker (from the first two films) and Vin Diesel (from the first film) weren’t returning and the series could well have come to a quiet conclusion with this film. However, Lin did enough to make Universal Pictures some money and give the execs the belief that there was still life left in the franchise. He was called back for the fourth film, this time with the original cast returning. It was a significant commercial success and got him the gig for the next two films as well, each one going from strength to strength, with the addition of rising and future stars like Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot.

Now Paramount must be hoping that Lin can bring the same magic touch to the Star Trek series. JJ Abrams rebooted the series to commercial and critical success in 2009 and hopes were high for his follow up in 2013. But it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, probably because of its messy plot which also fiddled around with a hallowed storyline from the original film series; Abrams and his beloved writers Kurtzman, Orci and Lindelof have been known to aim too high and fall short in the past (yes, I’m talking about Lost). With Abrams now having to produce both Star Wars (for Disney) and Star Trek films, Paramount have turned to Justin Lin to helm the 3rd entry in the rebooted Star Trek series.

Star Trek Beyond plays like a two hour TV episode. So audiences don’t have to be familiar with the plots of the previous films, only with the overall premise and with the key characters.

The film opens 3 years into the crew’s 5 year mission to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations”. Everyone has settled into a routine and Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) is going through a crisis of faith as one day blurs into the other. In fact, he’s applied to Starfleet for a desk job. Other members of the crew are immersed in their own lives. Sulu (John Cho) misses his young daughter, Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are taking time off from their relationship, McCoy (Karl Urban) is in a philosophical mood and Scotty (Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script) is obsessed with affairs of the Enterprise as usual.

The crew stops for shore leave at the massive new space station named Starbase Yorktown, which is a marvel of film production design – beautifully rendered in incredible eye-popping detail. There are two significant scenes at the Yorktown and I am sure that in due course I will watch this movie again just to pick up all the engineering details. I bet there will be a few scifi forums discussing the design as well. It’s so massive that as it comes into view, Dr. McCoy says “why didn’t they just rent space on a planet?”.

While at Yorktown, a rescue mission comes up requiring a flight through a dangerous route. The Enterprise is equipped with the best navigation system so Kirk is asked to take up the mission and off they go.

Very soon, the crew are fighting for their survival on the planet Altamid against a dangerous, almost invincible foe named Krall (played by Idris Elba, unrecognizable underneath alien make-up). Also on the planet is another victim of Krall, a scavenger named Jaylah who is trying to find parts to repair an old spaceship so she can escape from the planet. Jaylah (also under a fair bit of make-up) is played by Algerian born actress Sofia Boutella, who made such an impression playing the blade-legged assassin in Kingsman: The Secret Service in 2014. She is the perfect feisty foil for the Enterprise crew and together they try to outwit Krall’s forces, escape Altamid and prevent Krall from unleashing havoc on the rest of the Federation.

As I had mentioned, the film’s plot is written like an extended TV episode, so it doesn’t try too hard to explain how and why things happen. Also, in keeping with the tone of the original series, there are moments of levity, banter and situations that are outright tongue-in-cheek. None more so than when the Enterprise crew need to use an audio signal to disrupt the ship-to-ship coordination signal of Krall’s space force. Since they are with Jaylah on her scavenged old spaceship, they happen to find an entertainment system containing ‘old Earth music’, one of which is Beastie Boys’ Sabotage; perfect disruption music, no? It works like a dream and Justin Lin has choreographed the on-screen action and destruction perfectly to the cadence of the song. I was admiring it and laughing at the ridiculousness of it at the same time!

It all ends like a charm, of course. All key crew members survive and as they toast each other on another successful mission, they are ready once again “to go where no one has gone before”.

There is already talk of a 4th film, one which may feature Capt. Kirk’s deceased father George Kirk. George appeared for a few minutes in the opening sequence of Star Trek (2009) and was played by an then-unknown Aussie actor named Chris Hemsworth. Not surprising then that the filmmakers would be looking for a way to bring the new world famous actor back into the picture.