Review: “The Suicide Squad”

The DC Extended Universe got off to a rough start—so much so that over the last year, we’ve seen Warner Brothers attempt to course correct the DCEU, not by investing in bringing new characters and stories to life, but by tinkering with their past failures. This past spring saw the release of Zack Snyder’s four hour cut of the “Justice League” movie, brought about at least partially by fans disappointed in the much-maligned theatrical cut of the movie overseen by director Joss Whedon. And this last weekend saw the release of “The Suicide Squad,” a reboot of a movie that’s just barely five years old. 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” written and directed by David Ayer, was at the time thought to be the film that would breathe some fun into the DCEU, but it ended up being one of DC’s most panned movies to date (you can read my 2016 review of “Suicide Squad” here—and yes, I was among the masses panning it). Ayer has since disowned the theatrical cut of his movie, but that, plus the negative reaction of critics and audiences, didn’t stop Warner Brothers—clearly dead set on making this premise work—from almost immediately planning not a direct sequel to the movie, but a straight reboot. Writer/director James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad”—the addition of the article in the title doing the bare minimum to differentiate itself from its predecessor—retains the couple of casting choices from the first film that worked (Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, the director of Task Force X, aka the Suicide Squad, and Margot Robbie as squad member Harley Quinn), but otherwise starts with a blank slate. The result is an irreverent, gleefully gory movie that certainly contains the fun factor that the first film was lacking, but is also extremely messy and meandering, among other things.

If you’re afraid of getting another Suicide Squad origin story, don’t worry. The film opens with Waller delivering the most succinct of explanations on who the squad is and what they do as she assembles a new team of powerful Belle Reve inmates for a mission; less than 10 minutes into the movie, Gunn already plunges us into the thick of the action. Their task involves traveling to the South American island Corto Maltese, whose government has just been overthrown by an anti-American regime. But the squad’s mission isn’t to actually help the people of Corto Maltese—it’s to destroy a laboratory called Jötunheim, which houses a secret experiment known as Project Starfish.

The first big action sequence—in which a team led by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) storms the beach at Corto Maltese only to be ambushed by the country’s military—is rather shocking, and sets the tone for the rest of the film. In a few violent, bloody minutes, Gunn informs his audience that they shouldn’t get too attached to any of these characters—that anything can happen. That’s kind of an exciting thing for a big superhero movie, the majority of which have settled into a comfortable and fairly predictable formula.

And then we flip to the second Suicide Squad team infiltrating Corto Maltese, our main group of protagonists for the remainder of the movie. This team consists of Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a crack-shot mercenary; Peacemaker (John Cena), also a great shot, but also much more obsessed with attaining peace, no matter what the cost; the human/shark hybrid Nanaue, aka King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone; Abner Krill, aka the Polk-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), whose side effects of his powers are a hefty dose of mommy issues; and Cleo, aka Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), so named because her father (played by Taika Waititi in a cameo) was the original Ratcatcher, and whose power is, you guessed it, summoning rats.

Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), Peacemaker (John Cena), Bloodsport (Idris Elba), and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) in “The Suicide Squad”

But it isn’t long after this introduction that “The Suicide Squad” starts to get messy. The team meets up with Flagg and enlists the aid of local resistance leader Sol Soria (Alice Braga), while Harley is captured by the Corto Maltese government. The group moves from task to task to side quest in a way that feels like we are never advancing whatever thin plot this movie has. It works better when you look at it as a series of anecdotes; individual scenes are strong when isolated, but don’t feel like they fit together as a whole. But as much as the team is often split up, Gunn does a good job giving them plenty of bonding moments, in addition to scenes that emphasize where they split politically and ideologically. We may not get clear character arcs for everyone—so many people, so little time—but we do get a sense of their backstory and what makes them tick. Gunn injects his script with a lot of humor, and while not all of it lands, the cast overall does a good job bringing it to life.

Elba is a solid and steady presence as team leader Bloodsport, who is established at the beginning to have an estranged relationship with his teenage daughter (played by Storm Reid, and who Waller has threatened to kill if he doesn’t cooperate with her). I still don’t particularly enjoy Cena as an actor (see my review of his appearance in “F9” earlier this summer), but there’s no doubt that he has a better handle on the more comedic bits, while at the same time I sort of buy him as a twisted Captain America. “The Suicide Squad” also contains some surprisingly soft moments, brought to you primarily by King Shark, who, yes, can eat you, but also just seems to really want to make friends, and Ratcatcher 2. In fact, Melchior kind of runs away with the entire movie, delivering a performance that is filled with empathy for everyone around her. In a movie filled with bad people trying to do good things, she’s the one character who I think is actually good.

And then there’s Harley, played for the third time by Robbie. As much as it pains me to say it, I don’t think her character was given any essential enough to do to make her appearance here entirely necessary (you could remove her and her scenes and it wouldn’t impact the movie from a story-telling standpoint). But Harley Quinn is one of my favorite characters of all time, so I want to take a moment to detour and talk about her solo scenes in this movie, because I think that, expendable though they may be, they’re really good. Robbie has always been great casting for the character (who originated as the Joker’s side kick/love interest on “Batman: The Animated Series” in the early 1990s but has since been featured in projects from cartoons to comics that allow her to take the spotlight) and she continues to deliver in “The Suicide Squad” with a performance that deftly reveals Harley’s toughness and insecurities, both ever-present beneath her bubbly exterior. I was very happy with how her character was allowed to grow in 2020’s “Birds of Prey,” especially compared to the demeaning treatment and surface-level character development she received in the 2016 “Suicide Squad.” The fact is, in the wrong hands Harley is a character who can easily be portrayed poorly, whether she is over-sexualized or viewed as little more than dumb and psychotic. As worried as I was for how Gunn would treat her in this movie, she ended up coming off as a good extension of her character as seen in “Birds of Prey.” She is far from the main character in “The Suicide Squad,” so of course she isn’t explored as thoroughly as she was in “Birds of Prey,” but Gunn does provide us with evidence of her continued growth in terms of her independence and ability to see red flags in the relationships she forms with others—a huge step when you consider how long she denied herself the realization that her relationship with the Joker was an abusive one.

After Harley is captured by the Corto Maltese government, she is brought to meet with dictator Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto). Before she sees him, Harley is cleaned up and made over, her hair placed in a fancy up-do, her body clad in a very feminine gown made of layers of tulle (and bright red, a homage to her traditional red and black harlequin garb). A swoony montage portrays the Silvio—who wants to make Harley his bride—wooing her, and Harley is taken with him immediately. But the realization that he wants to use his power and Project Starfish to hurt others prompts the hitherto lovestruck Harley to deliver these lines of dialogue, which Robbie says in a voice that is both confident in her words and her actions, but also resigned and sad that it has come to this:

“When your taste in men is as bad as mine, they don’t just go away quietly. They slash your tires and they kill your dogs, and tell you that the music you like ain’t real music at all. And all the cruelty tears you apart after a while.”

Harley’s physical actions may lean toward the demented and impulsive here, but her heart is in the right place, and it’s great to see her taking control of a bad situation before it spirals out of control, as opposed to her past, when she refused to see the reality. In fact, throughout this entire sequence—the seduction, the aftermath, and her ultimate escape—Harley is in control. She may not have been brought there willingly, but she is the one who initiates every interaction. And her escape scene, in which she strangles a guard with her legs and plucks the key to her handcuffs from his body with a balletic grace before taking out an army of guards single-handedly, is one of the highlights of the entire movie.

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in “The Suicide Squad”

I was less impressed with how Gunn handled the political backdrop of “The Suicide Squad,” however. The ultimate message of the movie may not be exactly pro-America, but it still isn’t a great look to have a country populated by brown people as the backdrop of your movie, when your movie centers around Americans coming to said country, wreaking havoc, and leaving it in shambles. Without even getting into the complications surrounding the various forces trying to take control of the government, it’s frustrating to see the citizens of Corto Maltese treated as disposal, and even more maddening when, in one scene early in the film, their deaths are made into a joke. As much as the film seems to indict American interference in other countries, its entire third act is exactly that. This is the second DC film we’ve had in less than a year that contains the problematic inclusion of a foreign country (see “Wonder Woman: 1984”), and it’s the exact sort of throwback to older action movies that we do not want to see.

Overall, however, “The Suicide Squad” is pretty entertaining. When it’s funny, it’s funny, and the plethora of blood and guts make the action scenes much more exciting than a PG-13 rating would have allowed. Gunn, who approaches the movie like it’s a super-powered “The Dirty Dozen,” gives the movie a nice visual flair, particularly in the way he moves the camera and frames certain shots, even if the aesthetic doesn’t feel consistent throughout. For instance, in that aforementioned fight scene centering around Harley Quinn, as Harley attacks the guards, gore is replaced by colorful animated flowers spewing from their bodies. It’s a fun visual, but one that we don’t see repeated anywhere else in the film. The inclusion of some songs in the film feel a bit on the nose as well, but overall, Gunn has curated a solid soundtrack once again. As he did with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Gunn takes an increasingly absurd premise and ridiculous characters, from a humanoid weasel to a talking shark man to a guy who vomits polka dots, and treats them in a way that allows the audience to buy into them: by acknowledging within the movie that yes, this is silly, and then swiftly moving on. Unfortunately, “The Suicide Squad” is one of those movies that feels like it’s about to end, but then has a whole other final act, and the end credits scene, clearly setting up future installments, doesn’t do it many favors either. There’s no doubt that “The Suicide Squad” is a vastly better movie that “Suicide Squad,” but that’s also a pretty low bar to hurdle. I’m not opposed to seeing what else Gunn has up his sleeve for the DCEU (his “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies are among my favorites in the MCU), but I also think it’s fair to want to see these movies aspire to something a little better than fine.

And now I have just one more question: what does James Gunn have against birds, anyway?

“The Suicide Squad” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until September 5. Runtime: 132 minutes. Rated R.

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