4 out of 5 stars

James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2) makes movies about freaks and weirdos, so who better to direct The Suicide Squad, a ‘soft reboot’ of the poorly-received original? Gunn was a protege of Troma co-creator Lloyd Kaufman, and his empathy for outsiders turned the largely unknown Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) characters into some of Marvel’s most beloved heroes. His knack for making preposterous ideas work for the mainstream makes him the perfect fit for The Suicide Squad, which also allows him to indulge his love of blood and gore.

The good news for Gunn is that setting up the story is a breeze, as the previous one already explained what the ‘The Suicide Squad’ (a.k.a. ‘Task Force X’) is all about. Essentially, unusual supervillains reduce their prison sentences by doing dangerous black-ops work for US government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). And while there are only a few characters returning from the previous movie, introductions to the many newcomers are handled far better because we spend time with one small batch of characters before time rewinds and we meet another batch. And whenever the action subsides, Gunn uses the opportunity to weave in some flashbacks, meaning we’re always discovering a little more about these oddballs as the plot rattles along. It’s not all awkwardly frontloaded like before, or reliant on dumps of expositional dialogue.

The exciting thing about The Suicide Squad, as a property, is how it’s a place to play around with the DC’s lower-tier, somewhat laughable characters. Some of them are so zany it’s hard to believe they’re genuine comic-book creations, but this means one can never tell who’s going to live or die. It’s a safe bet Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) will survive the mission, as the breakout star of the original, given her own solo movie already, but everyone else is fair game. This is something Gunn has enormous fun with, as characters are unceremoniously slaughtered whom you expected to be a big part of the story. Anyone could be wiped out at any moment, which means the action sequences are genuinely tense because almost everyone is expendable.

Talking of ‘expendable’, I was reminded of The Expendables (2010) throughout, which has a similar setup, and both star Sylvester Stallone (who voices King Shark here). Both are simple Dirty Dozen-style stories about bad-asses on missions with a low chance of survival, only this is a larger-than-life comic-book version of that premise. And it’s full of entertaining characters given decent emotional arcs, with good actors imbuing the script with more heft than is perhaps on the page. It’s strange to think The Expendables saga was marketed on the star-power of its old-school action stars, whereas The Suicide Squad is predominantly a ragtag group of character actors with only a few big names.

There’s Robert DuBois/Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a sharpshooter with a high-tech weapons suit who’s a sad disappointment to his teenage daughter. Wasted by Marvel as a glorified doorman in the Thor movies, Elba finally gets a meaty role in a blockbuster that better utilizes his charisma and screen presence. Then there’s unhinged patriot Christopher Smith/Peacemaker (John Cena), a meathead Captain America type who’ll ironically kill anyone in the name of keeping the peace. He forms an amusing rivalry with Bloodsport, as they both have much the same skill when it comes to firearms, and Cena impresses in his ability to switch between frat boy comedy and some dramatic moments. It’s easy to see why Gunn convinced HBO Max to give Peacemaker his own TV series, due next year.

The sillier squad members are rodent-controlling Cleo Cazo/Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), who has a sad backstory with her father (Taika Waititi) and helps Bloodsport start connecting with people; psychopath mummy’s boy Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), whose otherworldly skin affliction makes for a surprisingly lethal weapon; and the aforementioned King Shark (performed by Steve Agee), who’s a simple-minded humanoid shark longing for a friend.

If you thought the Guardians of the Galaxy were a peculiar bunch of misfits, this team makes them look well-adjusted. It’s clear that Gunn is having a riot without the restrictions imposed by Marvel for films that have to play for a Disney audience. The Guardians films have a quirkiness that makes them distinct from other Marvel movies, but Gunn being allowed to drop f-bombs and show graphic violence means The Suicide Squad cuts him loose.

The storyline is simple stuff, essentially dropping the team into the fictional South American island of Corto Maltese in order to destroy the Jotunheim, a prison lab run by The Thinker (Peter Capaldi) that contains an alien entity known as Starro the Conqueror. It’s a framework on which to hang entertaining scenes and ludicrous set-pieces, with a fun subplot for Harley Quinn as she romances dictator Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto). It makes sense to keep the story basic, allowing for amusing diversions and unexpected developments that prevent it from becoming a bore. We’re more interested in seeing these strange people interact and grow to understand their motivations and worldviews. The theme of The Suicide Squad is of lonely social rejects finding a purpose and discovering friendship, which leads to some heartwarming moments as the dysfunctional team gradually bonds.

There are aspects of The Suicide Squad that don’t work so well; much of the comedy’s blunt and immature, and there are some storytelling avenues that are of debatable worth and haphazardly bolted together. But despite these issues, the bulk of it works surprisingly well if you’re on its wavelength, and Gunn manages to weave in a few political jabs about America’s role in the world and the darker motivations of government cronies like Amanda Waller. DC Studios have always been trailing Marvel Studios, but it seems they have more success with fringe characters like Aquaman and Shazam, perhaps because filmmakers can put their stamp on superheroes that don’t come with a big cinematic legacy. The Suicide Squad had a disastrous start in 2016, but Gunn has put this corner of DC on the right path. All Warner Bros. had to do was hire the right person for the job and get out of their way.

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USA | 2021 | 132 MINUTES | 1.90:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: James Gunn.
writers: James Gunn (based on the comic-book ‘Suicide Squad’ by John Ostrander).
starring: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone (voice), Viola Davis, Jai Courtney & Peter Capaldi.