The Suicide Squad
2021, R, 132 min. Directed by James Gunn. Voice by Sylvester Stallone. Starring Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, Daniela Melchior, Pete Davidson, Michael Rooker, David Dastmalchian.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 6, 2021
It's impossible to talk about The Suicide Squad without talking about Guardians of the Galaxy. Indeed, James Gunn's take on the misfit band of villains forced into begrudging heroism would not have happened if Marvel had not briefly fired (then rehired) him from his third film in the series of intergalactic adventures, opening up the window for Warner Bros. to fix the mess left by 2016's unloved and joyless Suicide Squad. And of course they wanted his giddy hand at the tiller for this semi-sequel, because who wouldn't crave Gunn taking his studio-honed sensibilities and bring back a little of his impish outrageousness from his days at rebellious indie studio Troma Entertainment?
As the name suggests, The Suicide Squad isn't filled with bulletproof heroes who can shake off an axe to the chest. They're already in jail, a mix of DC Comics' dumbest Sixties and Seventies one-note characters (Javelin, anyone?) and the new wave of grimdark gun-toters, including Deathstroke knockoff Bloodsport (Elba, a walking eye roll): disposable anti-heroes sent off on one-way missions by the steely Amanda Waller (Davis, one of the few returning names from the first film). Her sales pitch is simple. Don't take the mission: Rot in jail. Complete the mission: 10 years off your sentence. Don't complete the mission: The bomb implanted in your brain goes boom. That's the leverage she gets to convince the man that put Superman in the ICU to lead a potentially one-way mission to the island nation of Corto Maltese to blow up a secret super-science facility.
Yet, for a story so linear, Suicide Squad feels little overstuffed, never quite able to catch the moral complexity of comic writer John Ostrander's original idea of villains being forced by a greater evil to do good. Every member of the squad has a sob story background (and lo, who weeps for Dastmalchian's Polka-Dot Man, gone from petty criminal to suffering lab rat?), and the "government bad/mass murderers good" idea doesn't ever really get tested that hard. There's an oft-stated code about not killing kids, but that only comes up when narratively convenient, and ultimately there's just too much going on for anything to mean much. Gunn may well be the most fitting director for this kind of erratic, eclectic, belly-laughs-and-cut-throats comedy, even somehow making cosmic starfish Starro something like terrifying (while still ridiculous), but even he can't drag proxy Latin American dictatorship Corto Maltese, with its succession of juntas, clear of its stereotyped 1980s roots.
What he can do is let his squad have fun, and fun they have, proving that modern non-Batman DC works best at its silliest: So, yes, this is a lot more like Shazam! than the Snyderverse, even as it leaves that angsty artsy bloodbath wing of the DC cinematic empire lagging in its kill count. Robbie's returning Harley Quinn gets to cut loose with her signature daffy glee, with a spark of romantic tension between herself and legit good guy Rick Flag (Kinnaman). For anyone looking for a Groot-esque figure of adorable clumsy violence, the potentially hungry King Shark (voiced by Stallone) and his search for nom-noms is a winner. Meanwhile, the battle of fragile macho egos – another Guardians mainstay – pitches Flag and Bloodsport against the humorless Peacemaker (Cena at his stony-faced best, and well-deserving of his already announced Gunn-directed solo spin-off series).
Tellingly, Suicide Squad just never quite has the heart of Guardians. The team is split up so often that the film becomes a series of very entertaining vignettes, including a Looney Tunes-style bloodbath as Bloodsport and Peacemaker engage in dick-swinging "my kills are stealthier than yours" one-upmanship. Yet solo and duo antics like those push out the whole "squad" thing, and the tragicomedy of the classic "doomed men on a mission" story fades into something like an R-rated version of a Seventies gonzo ensemble comedy. It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, just with shark men.