James Gunn has a distinctive voice. It’s always been there, from his days at Troma through writing the Scooby-Doo films and the Dawn of the Dead remake, and from his early directorial efforts like Slither and Super all the way to the Guardians of the Galaxy and now, the Suicide Squad. That voice is juvenile, a little dark, and also –and this is most important– fun.
I say this because The Suicide Squad, the movie he signed on to make while briefly exiled from Marvel Studios, is a juvenile movie. And it’s a little dark. And it’s pretty fun. But while its R-rated excesses are probably the logical extension of his voice as a storyteller, it is also cobbled together from his greatest hits from other projects. Your mileage may vary on whether it feels repetitive or merely familiar, but it’s also enough fun that that probably doesn’t matter.
The story picks up with a brief recap of the premise: Task Force X, better known as The Suicide Squad, is the brainchild of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and is made up of imprisoned B and C-list supervillains. Deployed on missions to defend American interests, they either receive a ten-year reduction in their sentence, or they die (whether they are killed by enemies or have their heads blown off by Waller herself depends on if they follow orders or not).
The story this time has little continuity with David Ayer 2016 directed film to which it is a sequel other than some of the key players, but that works to the film’s advantage. This isn’t a franchise that requires deep lore or strict continuity, it’s one that requires a morally dubious band of misfit characters to take on enemies bigger than themselves and save the day despite themselves. If that sounds like Guardians of the Galaxy to you, well, we’ve already been over that.
The team this time consists of a returning Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), along with a large ensemble of newcomers like Bloodsport (a soldier trained by his father to kill from birth, in whose hands anything is a deadly weapon, played by Idris Elba), Peacemaker (a soldier trained by his father to kill from birth, in whose hands anything is a deadly weapon who is also a douchebag, played by John Cena).
King Shark (a giant anthropomorphic shark in board shorts brought to life by Steve Agee on set and Sylvester Stallone in voice), The Polka Dot Man (a depressed man with mommy issues infected with an interdimensional virus played by David Dastmalchian), and Ratcatcher 2 (a young woman with the ability to talk to and control rats, played by Daniela Melchoir) round out the key players, and there are a host of other characters, many played by Gunn-regulars (yes, both Michael Rooker and Nathan Fillion are in this), and it would take too long to explain them all.
The team is sent to the tiny island nation of Corto Maltese to destroy a secret formerly nazi project there, as a recent violent coup has changed the government from a dictatorship that likes the US to one that doesn’t. The project is eventually revealed to be a giant alien starfish called Starro, the kaiju you have probably seen the team battling in the trailers. So yes, this is definitely a superhero movie with a third act awash in computer-generated imagery, but more on that in a moment.
The journey to get there is fraught with peril, mistakes, and with a lot of R-rated violence. The team, which of course isn’t a team at the start but is a team at the end, leaves a trail of bodies across the island so wide it’s a wonder they aren’t caught sooner than they are, and much of this section of the film is incredibly fun. One sequence, in particular, has Elba and Cena competing with one another to get the most impressive kill as they obliviously murder their way through a camp of rebel fighters, only to realize too late that they’re killing the wrong people.
Both Elba and Cena are excellent in their roles, but Cena is used probably more effectively than he ever has been. His deadpan delivery makes most of his lines hilarious, even when he is claiming that he lives liberty so much that “he doesn’t care how many men, women, and children he has to murder to get it”.
Margot Robbie –returning as Harley Quinn for the third time– continues to be excellent in the part, and I hope she continues to make Harley Quinn movies for as long as she is able. My favourite thing is that this outing feels very much like a follow up to Birds of Prey, maybe more so than Suicide Squad, which was a welcome change in tone for the character. She gets many of the films funniest lines and the best solo fight scene, and it’s largely due to her delightful zaniness.
David Dastmalchian, a character actor you will recognize from his outings in films like Ant-Man, The Dark Knight, and Prisoners, continues his streak of stealing every scene that he is in. The recurring gag that he makes killing people tolerable by seeing his mother is used to good effect, and just enough times that it hasn’t totally worn out its welcome by the end, and Dastmalchian plays his scenes as a man who doesn’t know where he fits in the world.
It’s Daniela Melchoir who ends up being the most valuable player of the team and the movie, functioning as its beating heart in both cases. Her ability to speak to rats (including her constant companion Sebastian) provides her character with deeper insight into each of the misfits on the team –including being the reason that King Shark doesn’t eat them all– and her characters payoff at the end of the story is lovely.
One other area the film really shines in is that while the usual superhero fare has to reckon with characters clad in indestructible armour provided by the studio’s desire to keep bringing them back for more movies, Gunn’s script has no such reservations. The Squad starts with a large ensemble cast, and by the end, there are only a handful left and not all the ones you might expect. However, by the time we get to the end and the requisite CG laden final battle, each character has had a proper arc, and each of their hero moments feels earned (and a couple of them are beautiful, too).
The CG is excellent, too, and Starr feels like a man in a suit despite being fully digital. It does lead to some issues, though, in that there are several shots these days where when you see them, you know exactly what’s coming next because, despite the different context, the movement remains the same.
The Suicide Squad doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it is a pretty good version of the wheel. It knows when to zig and when to zag, and it’s peppered with Gunn’s trademark humour (which is a little juvenile at times). Most importantly, though, whether you connect with it or not, it knows when to pull punches and when not to, and it doesn’t feel like Gunn was given any notes by the studio at all. This is thoroughly his film, from start to finish, and that alone is enough reason to celebrate it. But, of course, it’s also a pretty good movie, which helps.
Suicide Squad is in theatres now and on HBO Max in the United States.
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