The Suicide Squad, directed by James Gunn, serves as a sequel and remake to 2016’s poorly received but financially successful Suicide Squad, promises so much fast-paced irreverence that it’s often hard to know if it’s even supposed to be a picture. Because of its constant profanity, ludicrous body count, and mean spirited sense of humor, Gunn’s vision seems willing to stay in a continual state of rug-pulling. There’s a lot of fun to be had, but there’s not much progress to be made. It casually kills off seemingly essential characters, and it delights in upending heroic superhero ideas with such zeal that it may get monotonous at times. However, the sweetest fruit isn’t always the best.
It’s hard to detest a movie in which Sylvester Stallone portrays a giant talking shark that acts intelligent by pretending to read a book. “Book read…so smart, me,” he rumbles pleasantly, holding the book upside down.
But the Suicide Squad was always intended to subvert the heroic superhero ideals. This is a ruthless gang of killers made up of a variety of supervillains currently spending time in prison. They’re allowed out on genuinely unique, secret operations at the expense of merciless government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), and they don’t combat because they’re trying to save the world; they battle because they’ve been bribed and blackmailed, and they also have explosives embedded in their necks that Waller will activate if they don’t follow orders. They fight because they get paid to murder. Because they are, after all, horrible guys at heart, they switch sides from time to time. That’s why the Suicide Squad comics are so popular. They are frequently deliciously unpredictable.
It’s also a fantastic movie premise because the best renditions of the genre live or die on the quality of their villains, and this concept is all about villains. Back in 2016, when Marvel’s colorful hokeyness had taken a turn for the self-important and DC’s gritty sincerity had been turbocharged by films like Batman v. Superman, it seemed well-timed. The first Suicide Squad film, directed by David Ayer, was widely panned by critics. It had scenes of refreshing nastiness, but it is evident that it had been hacked to bits in post-production. According to reports, a trailer-making company was brought in to recut it, which could explain why so much of the film felt unfinished. Since then, Ayer has all but abandoned the project. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how his street-level tough-guy sensibility wouldn’t have provided the R-rated but still infantile geekery that DC and Warner Bros. were after. Gunn, who worked in salt mines early in his career and produced one of Marvel’s more entertainingly wacky and vivid hits with the first Guardians of the Galaxy, is plainly a better fit for this material than Ayer ever was.
Despite its tonal shifts, the new Suicide Squad does bring back some of the Suicide Squad characters from the previous film, including Davis’ Waller, ostensible team leader Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), Aussie psychopath Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and, most importantly, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who has since starred in the well-received Birds of Prey. This time, they’re joined by Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Peacemaker (John Cena), both adept marksmen and assassins, as well as the Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), two of the more bizarre superhumans. He tosses lethal polka dots, while she commands hordes of rats. T.D.K. (Nathan Fillion), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), and Savant (Michael Rooker) are among the lesser antagonists. Our heroes must infiltrate onto the fictional island nation of Corto Maltese, which has recently had a violent coup, and enter an old fortress to destroy a secret alien experiment known as Project Starfish.
Of course, the story isn’t really the goal here, and you can feel the film sag whenever it has to deal with any sort of plot. Gunn, who also authored the screenplay, doesn’t seem to care about grounding these characters in anything approximating reality. Maybe it’s because he struggles with sincerity anytime a moment asks for it: Bloodsport and his adolescent daughter have an early prison conversation that appears to be intended to develop real payoff for the character, but it’s impossible not to detect Gunn the screenwriter throwing his hands in the air when parent and child start shouting “Fuck yous” at each other. Meanwhile, the film’s last act’s, multiple discoveries and betrayals are so predictable that you’ll forget about them even as they happen.
When Gunn, the director, goes all out with the raunchy jokes and over-the-top gunplay, the Suicide Squad works best. For sure, he’s a sleek filmmaker. He has a knack for visual punchlines that make his more grotesque excesses acceptable. He shoots action with precision and has a knack for visual gags that make his most heinous deeds bearable. Let me give you an example. Early in the film, a character who brutally kills a bird has his head blasted off, and Gunn makes care to cut to the same type of bird landing on the man’s bloodied neck and plucking a piece of shredded flesh. And, this was someone we liked. A subsequent massacre features unnecessary background humor as Bloodsport and Peacemaker discreetly strive for the most kills (dudes exploding, getting hacked to pieces, being electrocuted, etc.) Gunn’s knack for filthy humor is masterfully combined with a highly confident sense of style, like Steven Spielberg delivering a dick joke.
However, a bit of this thing goes a long way, and it’s plausible that The Suicide Squad is both too terrific and not good enough. There are many memorable sequences and lines in the film, but none of them seem to add up to anything. You start to become tired with the lack of narrative momentum and fascinating character arcs. Even the jokes get old after a while. The Polka-Dot Man, who Dastmalchian plays with tight, soft-spoken eeriness, has the best line in the film: “I don’t like to kill people, but it’s easier if I believe they’re my mom,” he says early on, and it’s a terrifying, comic relief, expertly tossed off. Gunn, on the other hand, does not stop there. The character then goes on to describe why he despises his mother. It’s incredibly entertaining when this happens for the first time. It feels like a joke being driven into the ground after the third time it happens. The film contains a lot of humor and style, but not much more. For some people, that might be sufficient.