David Ayer’s Suicide Squad may have killed it at the box office when it was released in the summer of 2016, but let’s just say its critical reception was a different story altogether. What could have been a compelling cinematic introduction for some of DC comics’ most despicable foes was heavily affected by studio interference in a last-minute effort to alter the film’s initial gloomy tone. This resulted in a poor imitation of the light-hearted vibe that Marvel had captured so well with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 & 2. So who have Warner Bros enlisted to help bring Task Force X to life on the big screen for a second attempt? The creative mastermind who brought the Guardians of the Galaxy to life for Marvel: James Gunn.
The set-up of Gunn’s The Suicide Squad bears similarities to Ayer’s film: CIA operative Amanda Waller (an icy Viola Davis) puts together a team of incarcerated super-villains to partake in a life-or-death mission in exchange for a reduction off their prison sentence. The mission here is to infiltrate the island of Corto Maltese and destroy any evidence of a top-secret military experiment titled “Project Starfish”.
Although the premise is similar, the film in no way acknowledges the events of its predecessor and is a total reboot despite the inclusion of returning actors like Davis’ Waller, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang and Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag. There is also a wide roster of new obscure characters included here ranging from a man wielding a variety of high-tech weaponry named Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a man who throws polka-dots at people (David Dastmalchian), a large shark-human hybrid with the mind of a child (and the voice of Sylvester Stallone) and a “douchey-bro” caricature of Captain America who believes in peace so much that he’s willing to kill to get it and is ironically called The Peacemaker (AND HIS NAME IS JOHN CENA!).
Absurdity is something that Gunn’s film confidently embraces right from the get-go. The Suicide Squad wastes no time getting off the ground and kicks off with an explosive opening action scene that feels like what would have happened if the beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan included Mortal Kombat-style fatalities. It’s the kind of over-the-top action that one would expect to see on the pages of a gritty graphic novel and is certainly jaw-dropping (literally) to see given how tame previous films in the DC Extended Universe have been. Yet the film never excessively indulges in hyper-violence and uses it more as a means of heightening the film’s unpredictability, making it hard to determine which one of the Task Force X team members are going to meet a grisly fate.
The Suicide Squad feels less like a direct comic-book adaptation and more of a gritty war movie in the same vein as The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes (if they were populated by characters with ridiculous abilities). But the film does wear its comic-book influence clearly on its sleeve. Events are structured in a non-linear manner, while title cards appear on screen to introduce the next chapter or to contextualise certain moments. It’s a stylistic choice for sure but it’s far more refreshing than just hearing Amanda Waller read a character’s bio out loud from a case file.
There is also a lot of creative camera movements on display here both in the visceral action sequences or even in scenes of dialogue. The quick camerawork gives the film a sense of vibrancy and keeps the momentum moving at a rapid pace, aligning with the intense time constraint that the squad is under to successfully complete the mission. The scale of the film also feels very vast and grand, due to it being filmed on IMAX cameras, while also feeling very grounded and authentic by being shot on set and incorporating some impressive practical effects. Never has a soldier being ripped in half by a humanoid-shark looked so good on the big screen.
Weirdly enough, in between the frequent foul-mouth exchanges and gory violence are some very effective moments of heart and empathy for these strange characters. It would be difficult to imagine audiences feeling empathy for a man-eating shark or a woman who communicates with rats but then you remember that this is the same director who made us fall in love with a talking raccoon and a tree-man with limited vocabulary. Gunn’s previous films, most notably Super and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, have showcased his talent at telling stories about outsiders being given an opportunity to make something of themselves. This concept is once again thoroughly explored here, showing Gunn’s ability to take comic-book characters who may have been labeled as “lame” or “the dumbest character ever created” and give them a layer of tragedy, making us feel sorry for them.
The ensemble of obscure DC villains here are also brilliantly portrayed by its cast of talented actors. The heated rivalry between Elba’s grumpy Bloodsport and Cena’s overtly patriotic Peacemaker leads to some of the film’s funniest scenes while Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2 and Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man lead to some of the film’s more sentimental moments.
It also gives the returning actors an opportunity to show a different side to their characters than what we saw in the previous Suicide Squad film. Kinnaman’s Colonel Rick Flag is a much more compassionate character this time around in contrast to his initial stoic militant persona. Robbie’s portrayal of the Joker’s ex-girlfriend Harley Quinn was one of the few bright spots of Ayer’s film and her performance here is probably the best she has ever been playing this character. Instead of her being a subsidiary partner to the clown prince of Gotham, Quinn is given an opportunity to stand on her own two feet and her depiction here is one that feels more aligned with the New 52 comic book run where she was a formidable and independent leader of the squad. This film also includes one of her best scenes to date and should raise a big old clown-like smile on the faces of her most hardcore fans.
For The Suicide Squad, it’s almost as if Warner Bros have chucked James Gunn the keys to an amusement park and just told him to “Have fun.” And that’s exactly what he did. The boundless imagination on display here is gloriously (and gore-sly) entertaining to behold and consistently makes you wonder what trick is Gunn going to pull out next from his sleeve. If ever there was a film to go back to the cinema and witness on the biggest and loudest screen possible then this is more than worthy of your viewing time. James Gunn’s super-villain ensemble is locked, loaded and has its target set on entertaining the living hell out of its audience….and it more than hits its mark. In fact, it bursts right through it.