Who Did It Better? The Dirty Dozen vs. Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad image from Warner Bros Pictures

When the first trailer hit for Suicide Squad, I was super-hyped to see this movie. I thought it was a really cool and original premise: a secret government project recruits some of the worst comic book super villains in the world to take on an extremely dangerous mission. The bad guys are promised clemency if they cooperate, while the government gets to deny any involvement or knowledge if they fail or something goes wrong. In my excitement, I told my father about the movie, and he responded with, “So it’s just like The Dirty Dozen?”

The Dirty Dozen image from Amazon

It turns out that in 1967, MGM released a WWII film with the same basic premise. In this case, the bad guys were Army convicts who had been condemned by court-martial for various offenses, but were offered a chance at freedom if they agreed to a mission deep behind enemy lines in occupied France. The film was regarded at the time as exceedingly violent, but over the years it has become regarded as one of the classic, great WWII films. As for Suicide Squad, it was based on a comic book series of the same name, but the comic book was itself inspired by The Dirty Dozen, so it is fair to see the new movie as something of a very loose adaptation of the older one.

That led me to ask a very obvious question: Which movie was better?

The Dirty Dozen

The Dirty Dozen image from Mubi

Directed by Robert Aldrich (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Flight of the Phoenix), The Dirty Dozen stars Lee Marvin (M Squad, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valiance) as Maj. Riesman, a rebellious, insubordinate jerk who is assigned to whip the convicts into shape and train them for their mission. He isn’t exactly thrilled with the assignment, and one is led to believe that his superiors gave him this job as a form of punishment. It doesn’t help that the convicts selected for the mission don’t get along with him or each other. The tension between the characters is well-delivered, as you can feel the constant threat of a fight, or worse, a mutiny.

However, after a few training montages that let us get to know these guys, we start to see them gain respect for each other and eventually back each other up when things get dicey. Each character’s motivations are clear and believable, and the whole ensemble has great chemistry together. The most complete story arc follows Victor Franko (John Cassavetes), who goes from being the most selfish of the bunch to a truly steadfast and selfless leader. There are a number of clever comedy bits as our anti-heroes show up the more prim and proper soldiers. Then, of course, the film reaches its climax with the mission itself, presenting us with an emotional roller-coaster mixed with edge-of-your-seat suspense and action.

Obviously, being a 1967 film made with a 1967 budget and 1967 special effects, the movie doesn’t have all the CGI explosions and other bells-and-whistles modern moviegoers have come to expect. While there are one or two places where that really shows, I would argue that, for the most part, it actually works to the film’s advantage. By NOT having too many special effects to rely on, the filmmakers had to focus on delivering characters we want to root for and a story we are invested in. If anything, the older, pre-blockbuster aesthetic in the set design, costuming, and special effects gives the film a certain charm that many modern films lack.

While the movie was by no means perfect, with a few scenes going on a bit long and one character in particular making some very poor decisions to advance the plot, I say The Dirty Dozen is overall a very good film. It’s an excellent popcorn movie for a lazy afternoon, and it would be good to include in a WWII movie marathon. An 8 out of 10.

Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad poster from Wikipedia

Hoo boy, where to begin.

Suicide Squad apparently caught the same bug that infected Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s as if somebody at Warner Bros. keeps looking at the movies they’ve been making about the DC Comics characters and going, “No, no, this is too good. We need to cut in some bad here to even it out.”

While Suicide Squad is far better than Dawn of Justice, in large part because it’s nowhere near as dour or dark and has plenty of levity to it, the film is plagued by baffling decisions. For example, Director David Ayer (Training Day, Fury) apparently decided that this modern-day Dirty Dozen clone with comic book characters should go for a hip-hop gangsta theme in its visuals and tone. Okay, that’s weird. What makes it infuriating, though, is that he fails miserably, resorting to over-the-top stereotypes like having several main characters covered in tattoos and speaking in phony street slang. The end result looks like hip-hop culture as understood by rich advertising executives.

On top of that, the film’s editor John Gilroy (Nightcrawler, The Bourne Legacy) must have been asleep at the wheel. Scenes are cut and spliced in very strange places, whole sequences feel like they are in the wrong place, and there are a few times where we see flashbacks to things we have already seen earlier in the film. It makes the movie hard to follow in places.

In spite of all that, you can still tell that there is a good movie in there fighting to get out. Will Smith turns in a great performance as the assassin Deadshot, and Margot Robbie practically steals the show as Harley Quinn. The role of authority-figure-trying-to-keep-these-bad-guys-in-line is split between two characters, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who shows how dangerous having an ends-justify-means mentality can be, and her subordinate Griggs (Ike Barinholtz), a no-nonsense soldier who is trying to hide the fact that deep inside, he’s facing a huge emotional crisis. The complex interplay between these two characters is both unique and very interesting.

Yet all of these good performances come to a screeching halt as soon as Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream, Dallas Buyers Club) appears on the screen. I’m calling it right now: Jared Leto is the worst Joker ever. He absolutely fails in this role, and ironically enough, it’s because he is trying too hard. The Joker works when he’s understated and menacing, but Leto is overacting loudly.

I really wanted to like this movie more than I do. It had great scenes, great action, and some really good performances. It’s clear that there is a good movie in here trying to claw its way out. As it stands, though, I’m giving it a 6 out of 10.

The winner: The Dirty Dozen

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Sometimes, just because something is new doesn’t make it better. The Dirty Dozen is a classic for a reason, and Suicide Squad just doesn’t compare. You don’t need special effects, a modern “cool” hip-hop look, or Will Smith to make a good movie. You do need a good story delivered well with good performances, good directing, and good editing and pacing. That’s something Hollywood knew in 1967, and could stand to learn again in 2016.