For better or worse, James Gunn has always been a filmmaker working well outside the limits of a polite and proper society. While it has occasionally landed him in unfairly hot water online, it also saw him inject overdue personality into an existing franchise. The Suicide Squad is the latest example of the latter as Gunn gives new life to the troubled characters and world of 2016’s Suicide Squad (see our review of that here). Where David Ayer’s film is a messy misfire kneecapped by studio involvement, Gunn’s represents the controlled chaos of his singular vision. It’s extremely violent, utterly ridiculous, and positively merciless with its body count — and it’s an absolute blast.
Some missions are so important that their success outweighs their risk, and that’s when Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) calls in an eclectic group of villains to do the United States government’s dirty work. A successful mission means ten years off their current prison sentence, but the odds of their survival are rarely higher than zero. The squad’s latest assignment sees losers new and old sent to a small South American island country after a coup has upset the power structure. The true purpose behind Waller’s mission is a bit murkier, but one thing she didn’t lie about: very few of them are making it out alive.
The Suicide Squad fully captures the premise, personality, and possibility of the original comic book characters, and Gunn’s script and direction are the big reason why. These characters are chaos on two legs — from the familiar faces (Joel Kinnaman as Colonel Flag, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, and Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang) to the new (including Michael Rooker as Savant, Nathan Fillion as T.D.K., Pete Davidson as Blackguard, John Cena as Peacemaker, Idris Elba as Bloodsport, and Sylvester Stallone voicing a carnivorous, humanoid shark) — and Gunn allows them to cut loose in creatively inappropriate ways. From an endless parade of gory carnage to its strong anti-American stance to a floppy dong saluting the sky before hitting the dirt, this is DC recognizing they can’t compete with Marvel on a traditional turf. They’re ready to play dirty, and Gunn’s voice is helping them say “fuck it, we’re all in.”
These characters aren’t antiheroes, they’re villains, and they make that abundantly clear. Savant kills a sweet little bird in his very first scene, and Peacemaker is gleeful in his desire to kill men, women, and children if it helps lead to an ever-elusive and unattainable “peace.” We’re told Weasel (a motion-captured Sean Gunn) slaughtered twenty-seven children, and Bloodsport put Superman in the ICU with a Kryptonite bullet. Credit both Gunn and the cast, then, for the film’s ability to help viewers find the humanity within and maybe, just maybe, root for these murderous bastards to make it out the other side.
It’s a smart play in part because when your favorite character in The Suicide Squad bites it — and the odds are good they will — it lands with surprising power. Sometimes it’s emotional, and other times it’s damn surprising, but all of it works to make their time on screen that much more precious. Everyone is giving it their all, but the biggest standouts are Elba, Cena, David Dastmalchian (as Polka-Dot Man), and newcomer Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2. She’s so far down the comic character food chain that she doesn’t even merit an original name, but she also brings a wide-eyed innocence to the ranks. They’re a wildly eclectic bunch, each complimenting the next, and a lack of prior familiarity never feels like a hindrance to their appeal.
The action is a combination of the physical and the effects-oriented, but unlike far too many of its peers, the CG-assisted antics never feel overly familiar or bland. The argument can be made that the unapologetic display of bloodletting and bodily harm helps, and it most certainly does, but Gunn and cinematographer Henry Braham capture much of it with a giddy beauty. From a competitive series of kills between Bloodsport and Peacemaker to an escape that puts Harley front and center through a flower-spurting slaughter, there’s a freshness to the film’s action and visuals.
While The Suicide Squad is rarely less than entertaining, Gunn’s script also ensures it’s also incredibly cynical of both the United States government and the cinematic portrayal of comic book “superheroes.” Good and bad are illusory constructs, heroic acts are often anything but, and American interests overseas are almost never motivated by a genuine concern for a country’s citizenry. None of this is news, but its acknowledgment in big studio fare and in a “genre” that’s usually blind to such things is unexpectedly commendable.
Don’t worry about any of that, though — The Suicide Squad is here to have fun, and it succeeds without ever feeling weighed down by true nihilism or any agenda beyond entertaining the hell out of audiences. Barely a minute goes by here that isn’t energized by hilarious dialogue, inventive visuals, or manic mayhem, and it’s glorious stuff. As Gunn’s script points out, rats are seen by many as among the lowliest creatures on Earth, much like the Suicide Squad themselves, and if those rodents have purpose maybe these misfits, weirdos, and psychopaths do too.
Now that you’ve read our review, go watch The Suicide Squad in theaters or streaming on HBO Max.