Enter the club and you’ll spot him straight away: slim-hipped, doodle-tattooed, gold-plated, and mystifyingly irresistible to women. This mini-man in a shiny suit that reflects his insecurities is supposed to be the Joker, but take two shots of tequila and he could pass for Justin Bieber — especially when he summons his babe, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), from the dance floor and gifts her to another man. This isn’t Jack Nicholson’s soft-bellied lover or Heath Ledger’s rabid dog; Jared Leto’s Joker is just an ordinary creep. He’s a bad boyfriend and a bad, bad guy who wants nothing, schemes nothing, invents nothing, and seems so ineffectual that Batman wouldn’t even have to stand up to take him out. Bruce Wayne could just nod at a bouncer and he’d be kicked to the curb.
Early on in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, the Joker and Harley are speeding through town in a sports car. They plummet into a river, and Batman dives in to fish them out. Unconscious Harley is easily arrested. The Joker has ditched her and the movie, rousing himself only to text her cell in Arkham Asylum — where she’s once again been promised to another man, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), a government agent who’s wielding a team of ghouls to fight other ghouls, apparently having never heard the old maxim about the enemy of my enemy being my friend. As Harley, Deadshot (Will Smith), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Boomerang (Jai Courtney, beefed up and unrecognizable), and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, gatored up and unrecognizable) struggle to defeat the witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and her Creamsicle-eyed giant brother Incubus (Robin Atkin Downes), the Joker keeps texting, with impersonal good grammar, to promise he’ll scoop her up eventually. His evil plans have the halfhearted passion of a prom date too stoned to get into his Camaro. Gotham’s worried about this guy? Just tell him there’s a Hangover marathon on TV and he’ll be out of your hair for a week.
I can’t imagine why Leto bothered pranking his Suicide Squad castmates with anal beads. He doesn’t have scenes with anyone but Robbie. So while he’s off squawking like a dying duck and lounging on the floor of his loft in a halo of knives, fireworks, and baby clothes (the production design looks cool and means zip — unless we’re supposed to guess that he’s so cranked out on meth, he’s making mosaics), Harley must rescue everything.
And Margot Robbie could have, if Ayer’s script had given her any help. Robbie has the wicked grin of a girl who could convince a nun to pickpocket the Pope. She makes crime look fun. When she looks at the Joker, her eyes light up like a kid who just learned the power of “no”: no to rules, no to manners, no to wearing pants. The camera can’t resist a slow pan up her fishnets, and in group shots, it magically zeroes in on her ass. Black Widow would body-slam that lens. Yet something in the way Robbie skips in Harley’s stiletto sneakers makes lust feel goofy, almost childlike. Her beauty is a toy, or, rather, a weaponized squirt gun. She taunts guards by licking the bars of her cage, but we know she’d break the arms of any man who took the bait. Her heart belongs to the Joker. Lord only knows why, but Robbie sells us on it.
Which is why it’s so lame that Harley dreams of being a suburban mom married to a neat-and-clean Joker who washes his face. She’s feral, not domestic. Besides, doesn’t she love her man as he is? Worse, it’s sloppy when Ayer has the Joker hand Harley over to a goon who just sees her as “a hot bitch” — and even sloppier that she cheerfully bounces into this rando’s arms. Didn’t we meet her character writhing to Lesley Gore’s “You Don't Own Me”? Either Ayer’s canceling out that song choice to prove she’s property, at the cost of the movie’s central romance, or it’s a trap. The stranger votes trap and backs off, but the Joker shoots him anyway, proving nothing except that Ayer can write a scene with lots of action and no point.
Now imagine an entire movie made of empty scenes. Suicide Squad is two hours of padding. Here’s how the first hour breaks down: The villains are introduced. Agent Waller (Viola Davis, miserable) explains her supergroup scheme to her lackey, Flag. The villains are reintroduced, this time with extra flashbacks. Waller explains her supergroup again to a new room of men. The villains are each injected with a bomb implant, finally assembled, and re-reintroduced. Flag explains the supergroup to them, and that all these murderers have to do is murder the right enemies and they’ll get a decade off their prison term. (“Ten years off a triple life sentence?” grunts Boomerang.) After three breakdowns, it still doesn’t make sense. The film doesn’t start until it’s halfway over, and then it still takes 90 minutes for this cobbled-together band of strangers to have a conversation.
Instead of focusing on the squad in the title — the chemistry the audience wants to see — Ayer doubles down on the usual DC tics: dark fights, a humdrum dependence on guns and fists, a cynical everyone-sucks grasp of politics, and sudden rain showers that people ignore. It’s moody and mindless, an angry toddler screaming over his parents’ classic rock mix of The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and a 14-year-old song from Eminem.
The greatest-hits soundtrack must have cost as much as the CGI, because the battles are barely thought out. There’s an army of magic volcanic rock soldiers who can’t be killed by bullets but die with a single baseball bat swing to the head ... and also die anyway when Deadshot shoots them. There’s a nemesis who grows stronger when electrocuted, yet somehow fears an ordinary bomb that, when detonated, doesn’t hurt any of the good guys right below it. Or maybe it kills a couple, but the movie doesn’t care? The closest Suicide Squad comes to the masterworks of Christopher Nolan is that, like Memento, it suffers from instant amnesia. It forgets about characters the second they’re offscreen and tattoos them with facts it fears we won’t remember: that the Joker is “damaged,” that Harley Quinn is “rotten,” that El Diablo’s name is “El Diablo.”
There's a chuckle when Diablo’s wife is shocked that her husband brought gang money into their house — has she never noticed the skull inked over his face? There’s fewer laughs when Will Smith’s Deadshot calls him “ese” — twice. Memo to Ayer: Directing Harsh Times in 2005 and claiming you’re the rare Midwestern boy who’s down with South Central L.A. does not mean you can pull off this Lotería card cliché who lunges into war bellowing, “Ora si, Cabron!” especially when he’s the only Latino with a speaking part, besides his one scene with his lady.
Despite the laziness of literally everything onscreen and in the script, at least Suicide Squad doesn’t force Smith and Robbie to commit career harakiri. Even when ordering Flag to smack Enchantress “on the ass and tell her to knock this shit off,” Deadshot’s charm improbably survives — no one makes eye contact with an audience like Smith. If you like them together, check out last year’s Focus, a heist caper with the bonus of dialogue and a plot. Fans might be happier renting that than demanding the pair stomach a Suicide Squad sequel. Still, there’s a moment where Robbie makes the case to give Harley Quinn her own movie. She’s lost her cad yet again and is sulking alone in the rain. Then the gang arrives and Harley forces herself to grin. It’s a quick flash — a smile welded on like a shield — and from then on, she never lets it slip. Robbie has wordlessly convinced us that there’s depth under her hot pants, and that’s worth a close-up.