"Suicide Squad" is a concept in search of a story worth telling. Both energized and betrayed by its "Worst.Heroes.Ever" theme and writer-director David Ayer's trademark visceral filmmaking, it ends up in a kind of limbo, not as strong as partisans will insist or as worthless as its weakest elements would have you believe.
The latest dark end of the street production from the DC Comics/Warner Bros. brand, this teaming up of some of DC's oddest villains into a go-for-broke team, is not as new under the sun as its publicity implies.
While the edgy verbal repartee that's a criteria for squad membership has a "Deadpool" quality to it, the misfits united theme recalls "Guardians of the Galaxy," and the whole notion of cranky metahumans with exceptional powers sounds very much like the mutants of the "X-Men" world.
No no no, fans will protest, squad members like Deadshot (Will Smith), Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) are totally evil. Except they're really not, coming off instead as mostly impolite misbehavers who have difficulty living up to the hype that they're bad to the bone. In truth, they're more like undercover heroes pretending to be transgressive, just waiting to be asked to be brave.
Still, in "Suicide Squad's" opening sections, these characters are introduced with so much energy that it can be initially diverting to watch them strut their time on the stage. Most involving of the group, helped considerably by Smith's innate charisma, is the aforementioned Deadshot, the world's premier assassin to some, "a serial killer who takes credit cards" to his detractors, and above all else a loving father to his 11-year-old daughter.
Right behind him is the enigmatic, heavily tattooed Diablo, a man who can conjure fire on a massive scale. "Born with the devil's gift," he is beyond reluctant to use it, insisting, "I'm a man, I ain't no weapon."
Then there is the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), a 6,000-year-old rogue sorceress from another dimension who lives in the body of timid archaeologist June Moone, can move through time and space and has career goals not unlike those of Apocalypse in the last X-Men movie.
No more than along for the ride are the thick-skinned Killer Croc ("evolution took a step backward with this one"), ultimate bank robber Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and Slipknot (Adam Beach), a man with a gift for ropes.
In a category of their own are Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and her boyfriend with the green hair and metallic teeth, the Joker. As played by Jared Leto, the Joker is too demented to be in any squad, suicide or otherwise. He's closest to being the pure evil the film is always boasting about, but his weird darkness is so off-putting that he throws the entire enterprise off balance.
Similarly problematic is Ms. Quinn, a Barbie doll killing machine whose avidity for provocative hot pants and a supertight top reading "Daddy's Lil Monster" is guaranteed to give parents of young girls fits. A former psychotherapist who fell in love with the Joker, her anti-social tendencies are shown to have been enhanced by electroshock torture, something the film depicts briefly but then understandably shies away from.
Initiator of the Suicide Squad — or as the film refers to them, Task Force X — is tougher-than-tough U.S. intelligence officer Amanda Waller (the always effective Viola Davis), a steely presence who believes, in a DC universe where Superman is presumed dead, that these metahumans are the only way to keep America safe from attack.
Helping her to keep the squad in line is Col. Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), this country's top Special Forces officer, and Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a master of the sword who for reasons unknown is devoted to watching the colonel's back.
Writer-director Ayer, whose credits include writing "Training Day" and writing and directing "Fury" and "End of Watch," is a filmmaker of style and attitude, as those raucous introductory sequences demonstrate.
But once the setup is complete, Ayer isn't able to come up with enough of compelling interest for the squad to do. Yes, there is the requisite zombie blob army commanded by iniquitous, all-powerful nihilists to deal with, but it all seems muddled and pro forma.
The plot also raises questions about powers and vulnerabilities it never answers. Is everyone in the Suicide Squad a metahuman, or are people like Deadshot and Boomerang simple regular folks who practice a lot?
Speaking of powers, how powerful is the Enchantress anyway?
Can she be killed, and if so, by what? Disenchantment with the Joker and Harley aside, any film that allows you the leisure to ask all these questions is not doing enough right.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language.
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
In general release