Bad to the Bone?
(Not a Review)

So, I’ve not seen Suicide Squad yet. Given the internet buzz, I should confidently predict that I’ll either see a modern classic, unfettered by the staid and foolish expectations of critics, or a monumental disaster, unrelieved by wit or innovation (I can’t do a Tom Paulin accent in text, but rest assured, there’s one in my head right now).

The reality of Suicide Squad? I’m expecting something somewhere between those two extremes. An okay film, with standouts and drag-downs that keep it bobbing along in ‘deeply average’ territory. And that’s okay, so long as it’s fun.

This past year there have been several movie releases where the narrative of the review bell curve has generated more buzz than the film itself. Batman v Superman. Ghostbusters. Suicide Squad. Remember Ant Man? Critics were lining up pot shots at it before it came out, hungry to write headlines proclaiming the first Marvel Studios flop. Yeah, Ant Man took over $500 million worldwide, on a $130 million budget. Even taking advertising into account…? Not a flop.

I think last year’s ill-fated Fant4stic set this ball rolling, when internet commentators and pay-per-click news sites found that a dreadful film (disclaimer: I haven’t seen Fant4stic) could generate more site traffic than a good one. Fed by Josh Trank’s release day bite-the-hand-that-feeds outburst, Fant4stic became commentator gold, and they’ve been looking for a fresh seam ever since.

(Of course, as of today, Jared Leto’s also started on the ‘it wasn’t me guv’ narrative. Seems there was no mention of a limited screen presence and attempted mass market appeal when he read the original paycheck. Weird how movie types get to mouth off about their employers in a way that would be considered bad form everywhere else.)

It’s Okay to Be Bad

Let’s accept for the moment that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ have genuinely objective definitions. Look, I know that it can be argued (correctly) that this is a wishy-washy area of subjectiveness and taste, that any work of art only has the value placed in it by the person perceiving it, and so on. I want to ignore that for the moment (not least because it breaks down some distance from either extreme), and focus on what I think is the root problem: there’s nothing wrong with loving a bad movie.

Take a look at your DVD collection. Take a look at the Rotten Tomatoes scores. Are all your favourite films rated fresh? I’ll wager good odds that they’re not. Does it alter your enjoyment of the film to know it has a low aggregated score from a bunch of people you don’t even know, and whose qualifications to proclaim upon their quality is often nebulous? Of course not. Do you watch some of those self-same ‘rotten’ films already knowing that they’re flawed, cliché and a little bit dumb? Come on, be honest. Of course you do.

I’m not talking about the phenomena of ‘so bad it’s good’ – you know, the films you put on because their awfulness becomes the source of entertainment. I mean films that are poorly directed, aimlessly structured, or have cardboard characters. Films in which the many flaws are easily spotted, but somehow don’t still your enjoyment. Films you don’t recommend to everyone, but only to those folk who you think will enjoy the strengths more than they perceive the flaws.

Let me give a couple of examples from my DVD shelf.

Hudson Hawk (Rotten Tomatoes score of 26%) is either a movie thirty years ahead of its time, or a colossal mess. Bruce Willis turns in a ‘John McClane on happy pills’ performance. Richard E Grant got sent to location in Rome and was followed around by a camera crew, blissfully unaware he was meant to be acting. Andie MacDowell? Well, she’s the unattainable love interest, who must be desirable because she’s Bruce’s only motivation for engaging with the plot, but she somehow never manages to embody any desirable traits.

While the plot makes sense, the convolutions don’t. The musical score references Die Hard 2, in a weird, fourth-wall breaking moment. The scene transitions are nonsensical and the action over the top. In fact, Hudson Hawk is a cartoon, filmed in live action – if Archer were a little more madcap on its action, Hawk would fit beautifully alongside.

Hudson Hawk is a bad movie, but I still love it. When the jokes land, they land big. Some of the set pieces have amusing wrinkles. Bruce Willis and partner-in-crime Danny Aiello are having way too much fun in every scene. (Did this film only exist for an expenses-paid vacation in Rome? Magic eight ball says ‘yes’.) Oh, and the core wrinkle of cat burglars who time their jobs by singing swing numbers? (Which are never really the length the film pretends?) Beautifully weird. Bad, but fun.

Skipping genres, The Shadow (Rotten Tomatoes score 35%) is another of my guilty pleasures. Honestly, the only thing that’s consistently good about this film is Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack. Alec Baldwin is… well, Alec Baldwin, as anodyne as ever. John Lone’s antagonist is uninspiring. Tim Curry plays some terrifying amalgam of Billy Bunter and every character he’s ever played on screen (including Frankenfurter and It), and Ian McKellen’s phones it in from a distant country with a crackly telephone line. Oh, and the whole thing’s weirdly well lit for a movie called The Shadow.

Still, I love it. The ‘tween wars aesthetic probably carries me most of the way, but there’s also the fact that the film’s reasonably sound in structure, even if the plot’s a little trite. The special effects show the limitations of early CGI, but it’s hard to fault the vision they had. Like Hudson Hawk, it’s impossible to claim that The Shadow’s a good film, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. But if I’d read a review before watching it, I’d probably never have seen it at all.

Ranking Reviews

So let’s say I’m right – how do you navigate a maze of critic reviews and know whether you should burn two hours of your limited lifespan on a movie – good or bad? I have a few tips:

Ignore scored Ratings. If there’s one thing criticism ain’t, it’s scientific. Reducing plusses and minuses down to a simple percentage can give an accurate overall impression, but most often it’s there because that’s the way these things are done. Don’t believe me? How many reviews explain why the film scored 78%, and not 79% or even 87%? Too often, it’s a number slapped on a gut reaction. Note that this isn’t the same as ignoring a review with a scored rating (which is likely impossible anyway).

Look for Evidence Behind the Opinions. Increasingly, reviews are ranty polemics, developing a theme without presenting the reasons why. Seek out reviewers who cite reasons for their opinions, rather than cute catch-all phrases like ‘uninspired plot’ and ‘poor direction’. Good reviewers understand that these are headings to explore, not clinching arguments. Their discussion on why they’ve applied these labels is what you’re after. It’ll give you a good idea of the film’s quality – good, bad or indifferent.

Seek Out Comparisons. We’ve all got favourite films, right? And films we loathe. Try to find reviews that make active comparisons to other movies, but in useful ways. ‘At least it’s better than Batman v Superman‘ is not a useful comparison, because while there are plenty of things Batman v Superman gets wrong, but also a fair few things it does well. Does the film have better writing, better direction, a better soundtrack? Is the tone comparable? Did you just think it was better because you left the cinema whole hour earlier? These are the kinds of comparisons to look for.

Remember that Film Critics are People Too. Well, sort of. Imagine that friend you have. You know, the one who keeps making the same mistake over and over again, even though everyone’s telling him or her not to? Now imagine your job is to watch that friend make the same mistake over and over, day in day out, knowing that nothing you say will stop those mistakes coming.

That’s the life of a film critic. Sure, it’s still a better job than most folk will ever have. I’m not, for example, seeking to compare the forced viewing of Adam Sandler movies to working in A&E. But it’s a reminder that critics get worn down, they start seeing things in absolutes – perceiving flaws that are more about the 1st-world-problem grind of their profession. They’re going to get things wrong. They’re going to lose objectivity from time to time.

What Next?

So let’s say you’ve done all that. You’re on the fence about seeing a movie. You don’t want to encourage a bad film, but at the same time you’d like to take a look. What do you do? Well, the first option is to wait for the home release, but that takes months. If you can’t wait that long (for whatever reason) then pop into your local theatre and check it out after opening weekend. You’ll have noticed that movies are increasingly judged on their opening weekend’s takings. Just give it a day or two, hand over your cash, and see for yourself.

Anyway, Suicide Squad’s a-calling. If I can think of anything to say about it that hasn’t already been done to death on this here internet, I’ll be sure to let you know.

In the meantime, why not go and watch one of those bad films that you love so much? I won’t judge.

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