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Critics Pick

‘The Suicide Squad’ Review: James Gunn Stages a Do-Over With Destructive Style

Back from the wilderness, the director of "Guardians of the Galaxy" delivers the cunningly scuzzy throwaway that the first "Suicide Squad" should have been.

The Suicide Squad
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Suicide Squad” is cunningly scuzzy, disreputable fun. It’s being advertised as a movie “from the horrifyingly beautiful mind of James Gunn,” and as much as I love “Guardians of the Galaxy” and enjoyed most of its sequel, I can’t say that I ever thought of James Gunn as having a horrifyingly beautiful mind. It sounds like they’re talking about H.R. Giger or Pier Paolo Pasolini or Courtney Love. But, of course, that line is really a movie studio’s way of spinning something they don’t feel fully comfortable with: the fact that Gunn, in 2018, was called on the carpet for tasteless jokes he had tweeted out a decade before on such topics as sexual assault, AIDS, pedophilia, and the Holocaust. For a while, as Gunn hung in limbo, it looked like he might be canceled. That didn’t happen — he was saved by landing the gig to direct “The Suicide Squad.” But Warner Bros., with that “horrifyingly beautiful” line, is trying to make a show of making lemons out of lemonade — of turning the public dimension of James Gunn they fear might be a turn-off into a selling point. They’re saying: Don’t worry, we know how out there his mind is. But that’s the person you’d want to direct “The Suicide Squad.” Isn’t it?

It is. In a world of remakes and reboots and recycled whatever, “The Suicide Squad” is that rare thing: a do-over. In 2016, “Suicide Squad” was released under the DC banner and became a major hit, but it was a slovenly, watchable mess, a half-baked dark-side-of-the-superhero blockbuster slathered in “bad attitude” that it wore like too much body spray. It had a very corporate tone: smirky and showy about its own outrageousness.

“The Suicide Squad” gets it right, honing that rogue attitude to a much sleeker edge of outrage. It’s a team-of-scruffy-cutthroats origin story that feels honestly dunked in the grunge underworld, and shot for shot it’s made with a slicing ingenuity that honors the genre of “The Dirty Dozen” (and also, in a funny way, “Ghostbusters”). In this movie, which he wrote and directed, the mind of James Gunn comes off as a happy downscale sick-joke place — no wilder than the sort of the thing you got in “Deadpool” or the more outré parts of “The Dark Knight,” but driven by an invigorating embrace of fuck-it-all no-futureness. The movie is, among other things, a splatter comedy of depraved sensationalism, with heads and bodies getting torn up, lopped off, and reduced to the flesh equivalent of lattice work. There are rats (a whole lot of them), bullets dicey enough to shoot through other bullets, along with the winningly low-down fact that while our heroes have powers, most of them aren’t all that super.

Marketing aside, the way the James Gunn scandal comes into play in “The Suicide Squad” is more incendiary and atmospheric than you might have expected. With “Guardians of the Galaxy” (to me, the greatest comic-book movie after “The Dark Knight”), Gunn became one of the most powerful filmmakers in Hollywood: not just another blockbuster king, but something you don’t see every day — a potential new Lucas or Spielberg. (“Guardians” may be the one film that conjures the playful headiness of “Star Wars.”) His downfall, in 2018, was potentially cataclysmic — for a while, it looked like he was going to drop from the mountaintop into a ditch. And because Gunn, from where I sit, is a humane dude who fully owned the mistakes he’d made, he not only got a second chance; he got a chance to take stock. For a while, he was in wilderness, and I think you feel that dread — that fear of bottoming out — in “The Suicide Squad.” It’s a movie about a desperate crew of criminals out to save the world, but the world they’re inhabiting is one where life itself is fully disposable.

This is all embodied in the elaborate dark joke of the film’s opening sequence. As Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” unfurls, Viola Davis, as the tough-nut A.R.G.U.S. director Amanda Walla (how hardass is she? Her vision of what’s required to preserve America’s place in the global scheme might inspire Cheney or Kissinger to say “Tone it down a notch”), taps a killer named Savant (Michael Rooker) in Belle Reve prison to join her latest suicide squad, more properly known as Task Force X: a team of violent cons she assembles for missions that will probably result in their deaths. (If a mission is successful, they get 10 years lopped off their sentence.)

Savant winds up on a plane with half a dozen other bottom-feeder badasses, who are delivered to a tropical beach in the middle of the night, where one of the squad, played by Pete Davidson (who, in a subtle wink of casting, would have been a perfect choice for the last “Suicide Squad” film), has sold them out — and sure enough, they wind up strafed by gunfire, as dead as the soldiers on Omaha Beach. Our “heroes” have already been wiped out, which allows Gunn to craft a killer credits sequence to the Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died” (one of those songs I never liked that suddenly sounds transcendent).

What makes this more than just a cheeky false-start joke is the way it sets the movie’s tone of drop-dead nihilism. The “suicide squad,” as presented, isn’t an iconic team of superheroes; it’s an endlessly replaceable trash bin of characters — the superhero team as meat grinder. And that’s the “Dirty Dozen” spirit. You are dispensable. When we meet the team of homicidal screwups that replaces the first one, they’re going to be our heroes, but we’re aware — as they are — of what thin threads they’re hanging from.

Gunn assembles them like a scoundrel version of the Guardians. As Bloodsport, a mercenary with a complex set of guns that only he can use (and a teenage daughter who hates him), Idris Elba takes a while to come into focus, but he ascends in authority as the movie goes on, his charisma seeping in kill by kill, putdown by putdown. John Cena is perfectly cast as Peacemaker, a square-jawed douche who wears a modified Captain America suit topped by what looks like a toy metal helmet (which Bloodsport, at one point, accurately compares to a toilet), and he says things like, “I cherish peace with all my heart. And I don’t care how many men, women, and children I have to kill to get it.” There is Shark Man, a great-white-jaws-meets-Charlie-the-Tuna sort of creature who speaks in baby talk (he’s voiced by Sylvester Stallone), along with Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), who can control any rat in her midst, which freaks out the rat-phobic Bloodsport.

The closest thing here to an actual superhero is Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), though he’s a deeply warped one. Due to an experiment performed on him by his scientist mother, he fills up with multi-colored discs that he has to expel like Tiddly Winks twice a day, and they are lethal. He’s also an Oedipal wreck who, in his head, turns every person he sees into his mother in order to kill them. It’s a great joke when Gunn visualizes this, because the mother (Lynne Ashe) looks like just the sort of humdrum middle-class Munchausen oppressor who’s worse than any witch.

And then, of course, there’s Harley Quinn, the breakout star of “Suicide Squad,” and the only one to get her own movie. She’s the one member of the Squad to return here — and Margot Robbie’s delectable performance reminds you why all that happened. Her Harley is still a wacked Brooklyn kewpie doll who so lives in the moment that she sees what’s right in front of her at the expense of seeing anything else. Robbie gives her the charisma of the truly unhinged — a duel pulse of wide-eyed spaciness and raciness, innocence and possession. Her escape from a dungeon cell, using scissor legs and prehensile toes, is a cracked minuet of timing.

The plot of “The Suicide Squad” is unabashedly basic, and there’s a limitation built into that. For its first hour, the movie coasts along on Gunn’s punk-factor flair, but it lacks the enthralling intricacy of something like “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” Task Force X is again dumped onto that midnight beach, which is the island nation of Corto Maltese off the coast of South America. There’s been a military coup there, which means that the corrupt generals now have control of Jotenheim, a stone prison tower built by the Nazis, who performed demonic experiments there. The place now houses Project Starfish, an experiment in world domination that consists of a gigantic starfish with a giant eye in the middle of it that sends out a bunch of smaller starfish that attach themselves to people’s faces like the creature in “Alien.” That the starfish are pink and blue, making them look like emanations of a 7-year-old’s birthday cake, is a cue to just how seriously James Gunn is taking this.

Starting from the point where our heroes infiltrate Jotenheim to line it with plastic explosives, “The Suicide Squad” comes sizzlingly alive as all-cylinders comic-book moviemaking. There’s a frowsy destructive joy to the staging. The film has a lively mastermind villain (the circuit-headed Gaius Grieves, played by Peter Capaldi), it’s got a healthy take on the double-dealing hypocrisy of American foreign policy, and when the giant starfish escapes, it joins the ranks of those spectacular but slightly absurd neo-kaiju movies in which the towering monster that fills the screen is candy for the child in all of us. “The Suicide Squad,” make no mistake, is a grandly scaled down-and-dirty throwaway. James Gunn has directed it like a bad boy, but that was his mandate. In fulfilling it, he’s proven himself to be a good boy (which is why he was rehired by Disney to make “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3”). But he knows how to dip into the gutter with style.

‘The Suicide Squad’ Review: James Gunn Stages a Do-Over With Destructive Style

Reviewed at AMC Lincoln Square, New York, July 27, 2021. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 132 MIN.

  • Production: A Warner Bros. Pictures release of an Atlas Entertainment/Peter Safran production. Producers: Peter Safran, Charles Roven. Executive producers: Zack Snyder, Deborah Snyder, Walter Hamada, Chantal Nong Vo, Nikolas Korda, Richard Suckle.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: James Gunn. Camera: Henry Braham. Editors: Fred Raskin, Christian Wagner. Music: John Murphy.
  • With: Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, John Cena, Viola Davis, Sylvester Stallone, Daniela Melchior, David Dastmalchian, Steve Agee, Michael Rooker, Joel Kinnaman, Nathan Fillion, Jai Courtney, Flula Borg, Pete Davidson, Mayling Ng, Sean Gunn, Lynna Ashe.
  • Music By: