Review: THE SUICIDE SQUAD, Literal Heads and Shoulders Over Its Predescessor

James Gunn directs an action-adventure movie.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: THE SUICIDE SQUAD, Literal Heads and Shoulders Over Its Predescessor

Not long ago, a blockbuster/franchise starter wannabe earning three-quarters of a billion dollars was more than enough to justify sequels, spin-offs, and even a prequel or two.

But that was before Warner Bros. spent $200M-300M per film on average to bring their stable of classic DC superheroes to digital life. With the SnyderVerse considered a financial and artistic dead-on by critics, audiences, and most importantly, Warner Bros. execs, out went Snyder (albeit with a four-hour director’s cut of Justice League) and in came new, fresh filmmakers, including James Wan (Aquaman), Cathy Yan (Birds of Prey), and James Gunn (Super, Slither, the Dawn of the Dead remake), on temporary loan from Marvel and the ongoing Guardians of the Galaxy series to give his uniquely irreverent, ultra-violent spin to DC’s third- and fourth-rate castoffs, The Suicide Squad, a sequel in name only to writer-director David Ayer’s underwhelming series starter wannabe.

Where Ayer failed to unite critics and audiences alike on a unified vision for the characters and the premise, Gunn succeeds wholeheartedly, opening with the ill-timed assault on a well-fortified beach on the island nation of Corto Maltese by a “new” Suicide Squad that includes only three returning members, designated team leader Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), along with makeshift squad comprised of no-name outcasts, misfits, and miscreants deliberately added to the mission as disposable, expendable fodder by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the ruthless, amoral head of Task Force X (aka the Suicide Squad of the title), a super-secret, government-funded black ops project.

Their individual names aren’t important nor what they did to deserve serving their incarceration in Belle Reve, a federal prison meant for the worst of the worst, only how Gunn briefly introduces them on the flight to Corto Maltese before dispatching them in giddily bloody, gross, gory ways. One long-haired miscreant with a bad attitude and an intense dislike of birds loses his head (literally) when he panics and tries to flee, forcing Waller to eliminate him via a carefully placed nano-bomb in his head. Everyone else dies, if not valiantly or purposely, then stupidly (probably how they lived), leaving Flag captured by anti-dictatorship rebels and Quinn captured by the island’s newly installed military dictator and his various, interchangeable henchmen.

The “real” A-Team arrives nearby moments later. Led by Robert DuBois / Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a hard, cynical mercenary with best-in-class killing skills and a soft spot for his teen daughter, Tyla (Storm Reid), the A-Team includes Christopher Smith / Peacemaker (John Cena), a jingoistic, xenophobic, America-First type with a kill-first, let God sort them out mentality, Abner Krill / Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a meta-human with seemingly unimpressive superpowers and a deep-seated mother complex, Cleo Cazo / Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a sleepy, indifferent post-millennial who prefers her pet rat, Sebastian, to interacting with her two-legged counterparts, and Nanaue / King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), a nearly indestructible, slow-witted man-shark mutant who’s developed a taste for human flesh, but down deep just wants a real friend or three.

Ultimately, the A-Team’s mission, finding and destroying a super-secret government lab, Jotunheim, and the dangerous experiment that could, if released intentionally or accidentally, in the end of the world as we know it (or something along those lines), merges with Colonel Flag and Harley Quinn’s mini-stories/tangents, each time in an inexhaustible flurry of high-caliber, body-puncturing bullets, Flag’s via Bloodsport and Peacemaker as not-so-fine examples of American exceptionalism and brute-force intervention in Latin American politics, and Harley’s via a nearly psychotic exercise in agency (she doesn’t need to be saved, everyone needs to be saved from Harley). Eventually, The Suicide Squad goes where every DC and Marvel film has gone before, in a city-destroying confrontation that pits the survivors against both the remnants of the military dictatorship and the kaiju-sized Thing-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

Gunn deliberately interweaves left-leaning politics commentary into the ultra-violence, though too often, he wants it both ways: He wants the audience to nod their collective heads in disgust and disappointment when Bloodsport and Peacemaker go on an indiscriminate killing spree, but then want that same audience to applaud when they shake off their actions with barely any recognition of the moral or ethical consequences of their actions to save the world from several greater evils. Too often, The Suicide Squad feels like Gunn’s sensibilities, his early background in low-budget grindhouse as part of Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment group, gross-out body-horror, intentionally offensive, boundary-breaking humor, political commentary, and superhero conventions, pull against each other and into incoherence.

For all that, Gunn’s well-honed skills as a filmmaker, on both a narrative and visual level, are evident in every frame, scene, and sequence, from the opening beach attack that echoes Saving Private Ryan, to a time-shifting, non-linear story, hard R ultra-violence atypical for a big-budget superhero/supervillain film made by a major Hollywood studio, and a welcome willingness to kill off at least one or two major characters in service of a deep-seated, well-earned cynicism toward American foreign policy in Latin America over the last century.

The Suicide Squad opens in theaters today and is also available to stream via HBO Max.

The Suicide Squad

  • James Gunn
  • James Gunn
  • Margot Robbie
  • Idris Elba
  • John Cena
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Daniela MelchiorDavid DastmalchianJames GunnJoel KinnamanJohn CenaMargot RobbieMichael RookerPeter CapaldiSean GunnSylvester StalloneThe Suicide SquadViola DavisIdris ElbaActionAdventureComedy

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