REVIEW: "Suicide Squad" is Exactly What DC's Film Franchise Needs

Is this a safe space to admit I was dreading "Suicide Squad"? Probably not. But before you go into comments calling for my job, allow me to explain.

"Suicide Squad"s path to theaters has been littered with red flags and marketing with loads of WTF. Its premise pitches a bunch of lesser-known villains into an ensemble summer tent pole with no primer. That's a lot of backstory and character setup to lay down in one film (instead of, say, the five movies that led to Marvel Studios' "The Avengers"). Warner Bros. won praise for hiring director David Ayer, who has been heralded for the intense violence and real-world grit he brought to dramas about cops ("End of Watch") and war ("Fury"). But when that killer trailer blasted "Bohemian Rhapsody" and suggested "Suicide Squad" would have a more playful tone than this spring's grim "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," many were perplexed, since Ayer is not known for comedy.

Reshoots furthered speculation that "Suicide Squad" was getting a lively makeover to play better to audiences, and save DC's struggling cinematic universe. But what worried me most about this movie were the scads of headlines not about its production or leads Will Smith and Margot Robbie, but about Jared Leto and all the bad-to-bonkers behavior he exhibited getting into character for the Joker.

As these stories stacked up, I wondered what it means when a movie is being sold so hard on the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of a supporting player. So yeah, when I finally sat down for "Suicide Squad," I was worried. But I'm positively thrilled to report that despite this bizarre road to release, "Suicide Squad" is a rousing and wild adventure.

Scripted by Ayer, "Suicide Squad" rejects standard superhero story structure in favor of cutting to the chase -- or in this case the sprawling finale. Ayer gives us 20 minutes of setup followed by 110 minutes of climax, filled with action, sass and the occasional break for heart-to-heart character reveals. It's a structure that would make most screenwriters weep, but by treating "Suicide Squad" less like a story and more like a sandbox where he can play with some of DC's more eccentric anti-heroes, Ayer delivers a deranged and deadly entertaining blockbuster that is just the shake-up this dud-studded summer needs.

The film kicks into gear with steely-eyed Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a high-ranking government official, detailing her Task Force X. A series of ruthless and witty montages introduce audiences to sharpshooter hitman Deadshot (Smith), "pyrokinetic homeboy" El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), sewer-dwelling beastie Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), possessed archaeologist/ancient demi-god Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), her boyfriend/Waller's agent-in-charge Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), bogan bankrobber Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and Joker's "crazier and more fearless" partner-in-crime Harley Quinn (Robbie). (Adam Beach's wall-scaling Slipknot and Karen Fukuhara's sword-swinging Katana are haphazardly introduced later during a gearing-up sequence.)

Oozing with chilly resolve, Waller proclaims them "the worst of the worst," but also America's greatest protection against metahuman threats. Rigging each with an injected explosive that can blow out their brains with the help of a "killer app," Waller sends her reluctant squad out into Midway City to stop a powerful supervillain's plot for world domination. To spare you spoilers, I'll not get into the villains of "Suicide Squad," aside from saying their plan and the plot surrounding it ranges from silly to stupid. Thankfully, "Suicide Squad" is so overstuffed with characters, stunts, and its own unapologetically strange brand of humor, that it's easy to overlook its nonsense plot.

Smith, who has been awash in largely forgettable flicks of late ("Concussion," "Focus," "Winter's Tale"), roars back to full star power as Deadshot, wielding weapons with as much relish as he does withering putdowns directed at Waller and her flunkies. Granted one of the more detailed backstories, Smith brings some pain into his convicted serial killer in touching scenes with his character's daughter, and his protective relationship with the impulsive Harley Quinn.

Speaking of, Margot Robbie is perfection as Harley, radiating jocular whimsy and electric danger whether she's performing aerial acrobatics in her cell, casually threatening the lives of her fully armed guards, firing off at enemies for interrupting date night, or skipping into battle with a bat and a broad grin. Devotees of this Batman baddie will surely hail Robbie as their new queen, and will be counting the days to her solo spinoff.

The rest of the squad gets little screen time. Still, Akinnuoye-Agbaje deserves props for his growling one-liners and fearsome physicality, while Hernandez brings a surprising pathos into El Diablo's darkest moment. Beach and Fukuhara cut mean figures. Kinnaman is serviceable as the straight arrow with a devastating crush. And though Delevingne looks way too young to for her archaeologist role, she comes alive as the twisted Enchantress. Yet of these supporting Squad members, the scene-stealer is Courtney's Captain Boomerang.

Long lost in suck dreck as "A Good Day to Die Hard," the "Divergent" series and "Terminator Genisys," I'd given up on Courtney's star launch. But it turns out letting the Aussie wallow in his homeland's accent while swigging beers and playing the brawny buffoon was all he needs. Boomerang isn't offered a character arc, or much in the way of backstory (aside for a love of pink unicorns). But Courtney uses each frame to inject a bit of goofy lunacy into the pic, earning laughs and showing his untapped potential as a character actor.

But for all the star power and bravado this team brings to "Suicide Squad," all are outmatched by Davis as Waller. The Oscar-nominated actress proves she needs no crazy costume or superpowers to walk tall in the world of metahumans. Davis exudes power and menace. With the purse of her lips, proud men crumble. With the raise of one finely manicured finger, a whole task force of criminals withers before her. And when she sneers, "In a world of men and monsters, this is the only way to protect our country," we believe her. If there were any justice, the Academy would recognize Davis's cold-hearted turn come Oscar season, she's that riveting.

Then there's Jared Leto. His Joker is lame. Riddled in ridiculous tattoos and ever-smeared with cheap red lipstick, he looks like a C-list celeb's Instagram account, desperate for attention. His minions stalk about in panda costumes and cartoony masks, as if they wandered off from a Katy Perry concert. In one scene, he lies giggling on the floor, surrounded by weapons in carefully arranged concentric circles. Far from disturbing, it made me imagine if his lackey had wandered in 10 minutes earlier and caught this superficial psycho fussily straightening daggers and guns to make just the right intimidating impression. Leto's Joker lacks the zany mayhem of Jack Nicholson's and the terrifying nihilism of Heath Ledger's. Leto's is all style, no substance. Thankfully, his screen time makes up maybe seven minutes of the movie, not enough to taint this otherwise rich romp. But I admit, Leto and Robbie do share a sharp chemistry that makes Joker and Harley's romance sizzle as it should.

Though wonky in structure, it makes a certain sense that this antihero tale wouldn't play by the rules. Packed with attitude, "Suicide Squad" is ferocious fun, boasting a bounty of action, mirthful mayhem, and a cavalcade of curious characters. It's just the kick in the pants Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment need to correct course ahead of next year's "Justice League."

"Suicide Squad" opens this Friday, Aug. 5.

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