James Gunn’s road to “The Suicide Squad” was a bumpy one starting with his temporary firing by Disney in 2018 after some pretty vile and bone-headed tweets from years earlier resurfaced. Within three months after his dismissal from the House of Mouse he was hired by Warner Bros. to makes a DCEU movie. For some reason the studio wanted him to do a Superman movie, but he (thankfully) turned it down. When asked what DC property he would like to adapt, his choice was (obviously) Suicide Squad.
Warner Bros. had already taken a shot at a Suicide Squad film with their 2016 David Ayer and Will Smith debacle. The universally panned disaster really only got high marks for one thing – Margot Robbie’s delightfully psychotic portrayal of Harley Quinn. But now we get Gunn’s film, a brazenly R-rated big-budget do-over that seeks to set itself apart by going the “Deadpool” route. And if there’s one thing those oddly beloved Ryan Reynolds flicks have shown us, it’s that sometimes all you need is blood, boobs and a boatload of f-bombs to get an audience.
But there’s a little something more to James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad” that the “Deadpool” movies didn’t have. Yes, it fully embraces the same delusion that soaking a superhero movie in profanity somehow makes it cooler and edgier. And yes, sometimes it uses its graphic violence as an attention-getting crutch. And Gunn (who serves as writer and director) turns too many of his characters into nothing more than walking punchlines. Yet among all the violence and laughs (and there are many) is and actual heart. It’s often dark and twisted and sometimes hard to find, but it’s heart nonetheless.
Gunn straddles a fine line with “The Suicide Squad”, not always perfectly but well enough to get by. Too often you can see him actively working for his R-rating. Other times he gets too caught up in the whole “from the horribly beautiful mind of James Gunn” persona. On the other hand, Gunn’s love for his large batch of characters is evident from the start and even the smallest villain-turned-antihero gets a cool action beat or funny gag all to themselves. And while the violence is graphic (heads blow up, limbs are sliced off, throats are slit, torsos are ripped in half), so much of it is over-the-top and played for laughs. And in a weird (but undeniably entertaining) way, the blood-n-gore helps define this wacky little pocket of the DCEU where a movie like this can exist.
The story is pretty basic – assemble a team of imprisoned supervillains and send them on an extremely dangerous yet critically important mission for the US government. It’s unlikely that the violent cons will survive, but if they do they get ten years knocked off their sentence. That’s the gist of it. There’s some international conspiracy mumbo-jumbo with some base-level foreign policy critique that pops up later. But mostly it’s Gunn letting his ragtag band of homicidal screw-ups off their leashes and then running them through the meat grinder.
Under the stone-faced supervision of the ever-grumpy government liaison Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), Task Force X (because the murderous yet sensitive team considers the name Suicide Squad “degrading”) is sent to the South American island nation of Corto Maltese. There, a violent military coup has overthrown one hostile government and replaced it with a more subtly megalomaniacal one led by President Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto). But the American government’s real target is the island’s scientific research facility named Jotunheim. It houses something known only as Project Starfish, a potentially cataclysmic weapon believed to be extraterrestrial in origin. The squad’s mission is to land undetected on the island, infiltrate the facility and destroy every trace of Project Starfish.
The movie opens with a jolt and instantly lets us know that no one in Gunn’s world is sacred. Colonel Rick Flagg (a returning Joel Kinnaman) is the poor sap assigned to lead Team One while Bloodsport (Idris Elba) heads Team Two. Filling out this unsavory lot is Harley Quinn (an also returning Margot Robbie), the freedom loving buffoon Peacemaker (John Cena), King Shark – a hulking talking shark in swim trunks wonderfully voiced by Sylvester Stallone, Ratcatcher II (an endearing Daniela Melchior) who can summon an army of rats (where they all come from and how they get there so fast are questions better left unasked), and the somber forlorn Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian).
Numerous other recognizable faces liven up the squad including Jai Courtney returning as Boomerang, Nathan Fillion, Michael Rooker, Pete Davidson, Sean Gunn, and Flula Borg. It’s ultimately this collage of characters mixed with Gunn’s free-wheeling irreverence that drives the movie. The performances are top-to-bottom terrific with Elba, Robbie, Stallone, and Dastmalchian as the standouts. Kinnaman plays a good straight man while Gunn gives Cena a role that perfectly utilizes his limitations. Everyone seems to be in on the joke and (more importantly) onboard with Gunn’s gleefully scuzzy vision.
The movie also looks amazing and you can see every bit of the film’s $185 million budget on screen. This is especially true in the rousing final act that takes the genre’s traditional CGI blowout ending and goes nuts with it. Gunn, his DP Henry Braham, and an insanely talented digital effects team make sure the film finishes on a wildly absurd and visually glorious note. It’s a gonzo finale that will leave audiences laughing and in utter awe.
“The Suicide Squad”, warts and all, is one crazy concoction. In one sense it’s an overly indulgent exercise in style-over-substance. It’s hardly the most seamless story and some of its character bits are too flimsy to resonate (a prime example is a woefully undercooked side-story about Bloodsport and his teenage daughter). But even with its flaws, the film has this uniquely raucous and chaotic pulse and once you get in sync with it you can’t help but have a good time. It had me constantly thinking back to “The Dirty Dozen”, “The Wild Bunch”, “The Expendables” and even the Borg Cubes from “Star Trek”. And that’s the kind of movie James Gunn has made. Not some superhero reheat, but an original spin on the genre that calls back to numerous works while still being unlike anything we’ve seen before.