The Suicide Squad

Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn
Stars: Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), Idris Elba (Robert DuBois / Bloodsport), John Cena (Christopher Smith / Peacemaker), Joel Kinnaman (Colonel Rick Flag), Sylvester Stallone (Nanaue / King Shark), Viola Davis (Amanda Waller), David Dastmalchian (Abner Krill / Polka-Dot Man), Daniela Melchior (Cleo Cazo / Ratcatcher 2), Michael Rooker (Brian Durlin / Savant), Jai Courtney (George “Digger” Harkness / Captain Boomerang), Peter Capaldi (Gaius Grieves / The Thinker), Alice Braga (Sol Soria), Pete Davidson (Richard “Dick” Hertz / Blackguard)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2021
Country: U.S.
The Suicide Squad
The Suicide Squad

From a purely visceral standpoint, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is everything that its predecessor, David Ayers’s Suicide Squad (2016), was not. The latter film, hemmed in by the constraints of a studio-imposed PG-13 rating, couldn’t fully cut loose in the graphic manner that Gunn’s film—which is either a sequel or a reboot or something in-between—does. Gunn got his start writing screenplays for Troma Entertainment’s gross-out comedies and horror oddities before breaking into the mainstream with Slither (2006), an absurdly funny, creepy-gross sci-fi/horror hybrid packed with horror movie references. That landed him the deal of a lifetime writing and directing Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and its 2017 sequel. As both of those films were meta-humorous sci-fi action extravaganzas, it was something of a no-brainer that DC would poach him to make another Suicide Squad film since the overall tone and multi-character approach is largely the same, but with the added value of lots of swear words and graphic violence.

And Gunn throws down early, giving us a gonzo opening sequence featuring a squad of villainous misfits hastily assembled by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the ruthless government operative who came up with the idea of putting together teams of “metahumans” to tackle the kinds of extreme, supernatural situations that the U.S. military is otherwise not equipped to handle. The mission is to go under cover of night to Corto Maltese, a fictional South American island that is home to a Nazi-era laboratory where a secret experiment known as “Project Starfish” is threatening all of humanity. Without giving too much away, I will note that things do not go exactly as planned, which allows Gunn to establish right up front that no one is a sacred cow here and anyone and everywhere is ripe for evisceration at any given moment.

As it turns out, there is a second squad in operation, which is the suicide squad of the title, led by Bloodsport (Idris Elba), an assassin who is manipulated into participating via threat to his teenage daughter (he is not the same character as Will Smith’s Dead Shot from the previous film, but they have an awful lot in common). The rest of the squad includes Peacemaker (John Cena), a comically musclebound would-be superhero (check the cheesy golden helmet) who believes in achieving peace through any violence necessary; Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), an oddball whose face and body grow large, glowing colored lumps whose purpose is not revealed until later in the film; King Shark (voice by Sylvester Stallone), a hulking man-shark hybrid; and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a sleepy-eyed millennial who can control rats with her mind. Oh, yes, and there is also the infamous Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), one of the few holdovers from the first film who also headlined Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020). Because of her stature, Quinn gets her own extensive subplot and spends most of the film separated from the rest of the squad, during which time she has a hot and steamy romance with Corto Maltese’s handsome dictator that ends in spectacularly unexpected fashion.

And that is one of the film’s primary strengths, as Gunn constantly thwarts expectations and conventions, usually in grisly, bloody style. There is a lot that is quite conventional and formulaic, especially when it comes to the big action setpieces, but Gunn also finds ways to twist whatever he can find in darkly humorous ways. Some of the characters, particularly Joel Kinnaman’s Colonel Rick Flag, the officer ostensibly in charge of the squad, have to play the straight man to the bizarre cast of motley villains, while others, such as John Cena, get to play their role to the brim of self-parody (Cena’s jaw is so square it should have its own screen credit as a spoof of uber-masculinity). Idris Elba gets perhaps the most thankless task, as Bloodsport is the most conventionally dramatic character in the group (aside from his comic fear of rats), which makes Margot Robbie’s wild, leering antics as Harley Quinn all the more cartoonish.

Amid the outlandishness there is some actual dramatic resonance, particularly the relationship that develops between Ratcatcher 2 (so named because her father also has the same ability) and King Shark. Yes—you read that right: the most compelling emotional engagement in The Suicide Squad is between a twentysomething girl who can control vermin with her mind and a gray hulk with a shark head. The fact that Gunn makes such a scenario work in any way is testament to his skills with the bizarre and the offbeat, and even though The Suicide Squad often feels like it’s trying a little too hard (they’re going to earn that R rating, dammit!), it is still quite a bit of lunatic fun.

Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

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All images copyright © Warner Bros. / DC

Overall Rating: (3)




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