James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad — equal parts sequel and reboot to 2016’s much-reviled but ultimately profitable Suicide Squad — offers so much rapid-fire irreverence that it’s sometimes hard to figure out if it’s even supposed to be a movie. With its incessant profanity, ridiculous body count, and trollish sense of humor, Gunn’s film often seems content to exist in a constant state of rug-pulling. Lots of fun but little forward momentum. It kills off supposedly major characters with abandon and it upends noble superhero virtues with such indulgent glee that it can feel repetitive at times. But sometimes the low-hanging fruit is also the sweetest fruit. It’s hard to hate a movie in which Sylvester Stallone voices a giant talking shark who pretends to read a book so people will think he’s smart. “Book read,” he rumbles, adorably, holding the book upside down. “So smart, me. Enjoy book so much.”
Of course, the Suicide Squad concept was always meant to upend the noble superhero virtues. This is a crack team of killers assembled from a variety of supervillains serving time in prison. They’re allowed out for special, covert missions at the behest of ruthless government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), and they don’t fight because they’re trying to save the world; they fight because they’re bribed and coerced, and also they have bombs implanted in their necks that Waller will detonate if they get out of line. Sometimes they fight because they get to kill. Sometimes they switch sides, because they are, after all, bad guys at heart. That’s what made the Suicide Squad comics among the more interesting titles in the superhero firmament: They were often so delightfully unpredictable.
It’s a fun idea for a movie, too, since the best iterations of the genre tend to live or die by the strength of their villains, and this concept is villains all the way down. It actually felt well-timed back in 2016, when Marvel’s colorful jokeyness had taken a turn for the self-important and DC’s gritty earnestness had been supercharged by films like Batman v. Superman. Most critics despised the first crack at a Suicide Squad movie, directed by David Ayer (Fury, End of Watch). It had its moments of refreshing nastiness but had clearly been hacked to pieces in post-production. Reportedly, a company that made trailers was brought in to recut it, which is maybe why so much of the picture felt like a random assemblage from a far more interesting effort. Ayer has since all but disowned the film. It’s easy to see, in retrospect, how his street-level tough-guy sensibility might not have provided the R-rated but still juvenile geekery DC and Warner Bros. were gunning for. Gunn, who delivered one of Marvel’s more entertainingly trippy and colorful hits with the first Guardians of the Galaxy and who spent the early part of his career working in the Troma exploitation-flick salt mines, is clearly a better fit for this stuff than Ayer ever was.
Still, despite its tonal departures, this new Suicide Squad does bring back some of the characters from the previous film, including Davis’s Waller, ostensible team leader Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), Aussie psychopath Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and, most important, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who has since had her own solo cinematic outing in the well-received Birds of Prey. They’re joined this time around by, primarily, Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Peacemaker (John Cena) — both of them expert marksmen and assassins — as well as the Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), two of the goofier superhumans out there. He throws deadly polka dots; she controls armies of rats. There’s also a variety of lesser baddies such as Blackguard (Pete Davidson), T.D.K. (Nathan Fillion), and Savant (Gunn regular Michael Rooker, whose bewilderment in the movie’s early scenes make him a nice audience surrogate). The plot is too generic to warrant more than a quick mention: Our heroes must sneak into the fictional island nation of Corto Maltese, which has just suffered a violent coup, and enter an old fortress to destroy a secret alien experiment nicknamed Project Starfish.
Of course, the story is not really the point here, and you can feel the movie deflating whenever it has to handle any sort of narrative business. Gunn, who also wrote the script, doesn’t seem particularly interested in grounding these characters in anything resembling the real world. Maybe because he struggles whenever a scene calls for sincerity: An early prison conversation between Bloodsport and his teenage daughter is presumably supposed to set some emotional stakes for the character, but when parent and child start hurling “Fuck yous” at each other, it’s hard not to feel Gunn the screenwriter throwing his hands up. The various revelations and betrayals of the film’s final act, meanwhile, are so predictable that you’re liable to forget them even as they’re happening.
The Suicide Squad works best when Gunn the director can go to town with the dirty jokes and the over-the-top gunplay. He’s a slick filmmaker, to be sure. He shoots action cleanly and has a flair for visual punchlines that make his more grotesque indulgences acceptable. One throwaway example: A character who callously kills a bird early in the film later gets his head blown off, and Gunn makes sure to cut to the same type of bird landing on the man’s bloody neck and picking off a piece of shredded flesh. (And this had been someone we liked.) A later massacre, when Bloodsport and Peacemaker quietly compete for the most kills, is filled with gratuitous background gags (dudes exploding, getting hacked to pieces, being electrocuted, etc.) and one marvels at how expertly Gunn pairs his penchant for gross humor with a supremely confident sense of style — like Steven Spielberg making a dick joke.
But a little of this stuff goes a long way, and it’s possible The Suicide Squad is too much of a good thing and not enough of a better thing. The movie offers lots of memorable scenes and lines, but it’s hard to feel like any of it amounts to anything. The lack of narrative momentum or compelling character arcs starts to wear on you. The jokes get old, too. The movie’s best line comes from The Polka-Dot Man, whom Dastmalchian plays with tense, soft-spoken eeriness: “I don’t like to kill people, but if I pretend they’re my mom, it’s easy,” he says early on, and it’s a chilling, hilarious bit, perfectly tossed off. But Gunn doesn’t leave it there. The character then explains why he hates his mom so much. Then we see through his eyes, and realize that everybody around him has his mother’s face. The first time this happens, it’s pretty funny. By the third time it happens, it feels like a gag being driven into the ground. The movie has humor and style to burn, and not much else. For some, that will be more than enough.
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