Suicide Squad Gets Violent, Virtuous in Zany 'Hell to Pay'

Directed by: Sam Liu; Runtime: 86 minutes
Grade: B-

Despite the rising enthusiasm toward both the group's first standalone movie and the appearance of fan-favorite Harley Quinn on the big screen, the Suicide Squad hasn't had an easy time of it over the past couple of years, certainly not enjoying the spike in popularity DC expected out of ‘em. The relative success of the animated film Batman: Assault on Arkham seemed to bode well for a live-action take on Task Force X, the government group that tosses low-ball, incarcerated villains from the DC universe into dangerous missions, so that they can shave off a few years from their sentence. After the tepid reception to David Ayer's clunky and awkwardly-toned Suicide Squad, however, interest has settled back down, leaving any future takes on the group with an uphill battle against the impressions left by that film. The chaotic and gleefully violent new entry into the DCAU, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, grasps both what the first animated film did right and where the live-action film faltered, relying on the wackiness of superpowers as a vehicle for suspense that swerves the squad back on the road to success.

Those expecting a credible, grounded story may have come to the wrong place, though, as Hell to Pay relies on a very specific plot device to make the story work: a literal "Get Out of Hell Free" card. That's right, the now svelte Amanda Waller (Vanessa Williams) once again gathers together an … uh, eclectic crew of assassins, henchmen, and superpower-wielding baddies to hunt down a piece of paper that guarantees redemption in the afterlife. Predictably, the near-faultless marksman known as Deadshot (Christian Slater) takes up the mantle of leader as he oversees a group of familiar and not-so-familiar rogues on a hunt for the item; Harley Quinn (Tara Strong), Boomerang (Liam McIntyre), and Killer Frost (Kristin Bauer van Straten) return for this mission, while Bronze Tiger (Billy Brown) and Copperhead (Gideon Emery) add some new blood to the mix. Personalities and motivations clash as they discover who else is in search for the "Get Out of Hell Free" card, shifting from the current owner of the card -- a pro "dancer" named Steel Maxum -- to villains pursuing it who are both immortal and exist in alternate realities.

While Assault on Arkham transpired within the brilliantly established universe of the Batman: Arkham videogames, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay doesn't latch onto enough distinguishing traits from its precursor to make it a "sequel", though it could serve as one if you squint hard enough. Instead. Director Sam Liu and his creative team have tailored the characters and atmosphere in such a way that it exists neither within the game universe nor that of DC's live-action realm, borrowing bits-‘n-pieces from both to make it an amalgamation that can now freely coexist with the DCAU proper. That means Harley Quinn sports the blonde pigtails with pastel-colored highlights and eyeshadow instead of her more jesterly look from The Animated Series or the early-2010s Suicide Squad comics, while the entire cast gets new voice actors: Tara Strong returns to the role of Harley Quinn (whom she played in the games), while Christian Slater's distinctively raspy voice takes over for Neal McDonough as Deadshot. Hell to Pay aims for Task Force X to establish its own distinctive yet familiar presence in the DCAU, and for the most part, it hits that mark without any serious issues.

They're hunting for this "Get Out of Hell Free" card, which should hammer home a few things about the intentions and tone of Hell to Pay: that the deeper mystical elements of DC's universe are brought to the surface as realistic concerns here, and that one shouldn't take the story's moving parts too seriously. Why this device has been made into a card, whether it actually functions as advertised, and why everyone seems to trust in its powers probably shouldn't be dwelled upon too much, as it's just like almost any other plot device engineered for Task Force X to fetch … not unlike in recent runs of comics. Yet, the prospect of redemption promised by the card does reinforce a thematic element in the storytelling, since all of the villains -- both the antiheroes of the Suicide Squad and the baddies hunting down the card -- have done things that they'd like to have absolved when entering the afterlife. This results in a compelling air of uncertainty surrounding the entire group's decision-making, since they're all participating in this mission in exchange for time off their sentences, tapping into philosophy of sorts.

It's a little jarring to hear and get used to Christian Slater's instantly identifiable voice as Deadshot, but those watching will need to do so because, unsurprisingly, the character takes a commanding role in Hell to Pay. While he's voiced the character before, the charismatic smarminess that Slater brings to Floyd Lawton dials his attitude up a few too many notches, skewing too roguish and not polished or professional enough to befit the assassin. After a little time with him, however, this tweaked Deadshot become entertaining as he navigates the rest of this iteration of the Suicide Squad, butting heads with the insistently non-lethal and stoic Bronze Tiger and the routine brashness of Boomerang; oddly, Slater's more sarcastic performance as Deadshot cuts into his rapport with the Aussie renegade, usually the one who's rough around the edges. Beyond Deadshot, Hell to Pay spreads its attention fairly evenly this time among the rest of the Suicide Squad, even minimizing Harley Quinn's participation to mostly one-liners and actions just about anyone else could've executed. Harley's taken a backseat as a less integral character this time around … and with how much exposure she's recently received, that's perfectly fine.

These exchanges between characters are critical, since the action-movie plotting executed by DC animation vet Alan Burnett (Mask of the Phantasm) relies on the standard, obligatory moving parts involved with pursuing an item that doesn't pose an immediate threat. Burnett and director Sam Liu get this, though, becoming clear in the outlandish violence and insistent dark humor splattered throughout the film, which really doesn't need much more than searching for a MacGuffin-like item to keep it all glued together. Instead, the motivations for villains of all stripes to acquire this card becomes the narrative thrust to Hell to Pay, which draws in quite a few interesting entities from many corners of the DC universe, most of which I'm going to avoid spoiling; however, it's hard not to mention how the presence of a new, zany iteration of Doctor Fate factors into the events, which works alongside Alan Burnett's amusing yet still dark and introspective scripting. The splattering of blood, violent rhetoric, and the brand's willingness to kill people off earns its R-rating through smartly orchestrated confrontations, but not offensively so and not without being tethered to reasonable interactions and reactions between villains as people.

The live-action Suicide Squad movie lowered the bar for future movies about the group, so claiming that this one's better than David Ayer's stab at Task Force X isn't saying much. Thing is, Hell to Pay actually feels like one of the chaotic plots jumped off the comic-book pages, besting DC's prior live-action attempt with more organic and humorous dialogue, a willingness to go all-out with violence where necessary, and a firm grip on the antiheroes as clashing ex-villains who may not bond after all's said and done. Whether it's on the same level of Assault on Arkham is something else altogether; however, when stepping back and looking at the big picture, both end up doing about the same amount right and wrong amid the action. Despite not being entirely connected to this second animated film, Assault on Arkham succeeded with established world-building around Task Force X and injecting brazen humor into dark conditions. Hell to Pay doesn't abide by the same rules or engage in that caliber of world-building, but it has a bloody blast in getting the conflicted morality and camaraderie between its team members right.

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