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REVIEW – “The Suicide Squad”: James Gunn Crosses the Franchise Lake for a Bloody Fun Revamp

The last we had heard from James Gunn might almost feel like an eternity, when really it was roughly two or three years ago, aware his studio spats were beginning to heal, and he could focus back on his craft. Of course, having lent a hand in shaping the middle phases of Marvel’s cinematic reach, he decided to move camp, thinking his time amid the Guardians of the Galaxy was up. He attached himself to what was at first an immediate and eerily direct sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad, an entry in the DC Comics canon, and even with being invited back to that other summer camp, he stayed committed to his contractual obligations. Without any hesitation, he rolled with it, distancing David Ayer’s prior effort, and once more spinning the superhero comedy upside down with middle fingers raised high. The results couldn’t be more welcome, with new achievements unlocked, and an itch or two reawakened.

Gunn’s story for The Suicide Squad (emphasis on THE) may be reminiscent of any one of his Troma works, with a drug-addled, fast-paced attitude behind it. A tighter action movie structure loosens up in the first act once a little deadweight is dropped. And for government intelligence official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the second time is hopefully the charm, as a larger squad descends on the small South American island of Corto Maltese. Each member carries a certain role in taking control of the property, and its noted prison silo Jotunheim. All while their defenses are weakened by a recent military coup. Some hidden secrets brew as the action begins, with Waller’s Task Force X taking the lead.

Among them, returning favorites Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney). It’s somewhat a relief to at least see these three come back, and not take themselves anywhere near as seriously as in their last team-up. Robbie, in particular, continues to excel, after her low-key delightful standalone adventure. Gunn ensures they can maintain their heritage, and poke fun at the same time. To say they’re off the leash is only half-true; they still must contend with a few fresh faces, also on a controlled work-release program from their max-security prison chambers. Completing the team, we have the grizzled Deathsport (Idris Elba), cocky and patriotic Peacemaker (John Cena), French film runaway Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), the animal-loving Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Malchoir), and the CG-bound King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone).

To the surprise of no one, they are constantly at odds against each other, not quite working together until the eventual point of infiltration, holding jaded scientist baddie The Thinker (Peter Capaldi) hostage for the break-in. Before then, that dysfunction, that disjointedness opens multiple windows for Gunn’s brand of humor to bisect away from the standard A to B, but never losing sight of its DC inspiration. Matter of fact, there’s more of that influence to go around than what Ayer could try under a PG-13 restriction. It’s faithful, if not also a trifle overwhelming on its unbridled edginess.

The visual gags and endless bloodshed can only go so far before it tips off a cliff. Clearly, Gunn’s rampant overcompensating is just him making up both for lost time and those occasions where the mouse had to hold him back. His passion does periodically outweigh better judgment, and after enough time passes, it nearly borders on the exhausting. Shave off 20 minutes, then that beautiful hyperviolence would play much better. Trickles of brilliance do abound, including a decent third-act final boss sequence hallowing some echoes to Monsters vs. Aliens, and a brutal fight scene with Looney Tune-y flourishes. Couldn’t say if Friz Freleng would be either pleased or concerned, maybe both.

The writing that’s on the page does a little better for the story at large, Gunn stuffing his script with a healthy number of childish one-liners, which the cast roll through without hesitation. After the herd is thinned out a little, the opening minutes showing a side of slight incompetence among smaller bit characters like Blackguard (SNL’s Pete Davidson), Savant (Michael Rooker), and TDK (Nathan Fillion), our core players flex their inner Pagliacci to amp Gunn’s comic consistency. And it leads to one surprising turn for Cena, whose track record has never been the brightest, often settling on wooden at best. Here, he latches on a solid groove, his emotional clout appearing comfortably genuine.

Elba’s Bloodsport operates on a state of relatable burnout, only looking to reform for his daughter instead of falling back into old patterns. Imagine sympathetic, with a mix of hairpin anger trigger. Malchoir’s Ratcatcher was an enthusiastic joy with her underdog pluck. Possessing a virtual rodent for a pet only serves to help her case while leaving Bloodsport’s fear of the creatures in check, he’s as cute as Stallone’s big, muscled fish. Such a musclebound brute with a low IQ and minimalist dialogue meets the Groot trope head-on. Here, he had a unique flair the tree man couldn’t equate to. And Capaldi, a one-time Doctor, proves again he’s just more laser-focused while taking on laughable antagonists. After Paddington, he’s easily 2 for 2. Keep an eye open for Alice Braga making big waves as the captain of an island resistance force, after her offbeat turn in Soul, a serious live-action role only further expands her on-screen stock.

The typical Gunn hallmarks are more than present. Although, they don’t hit the nostalgia button as hard. There’s a banger soundtrack headlined by a fanciful John Murphy (Kick-Ass) score, and appropriate needle drops ranging from Johnny Cash to Louis Prima to Kansas (a track I’d been trying to remember the name of for years). We’re greeted with oversized set pieces, the beauty of Panama, and Fred Raskin’s familiar editorial touches darting around those intense landscapes. All of this pleases the eyes and ears, but it still doesn’t tap the heart as much. The attitude still comes off a little cold with that sharp wit. I still came away feeling for these characters, but not to the same degree as with Peter Quill and company. None of that’s a letdown, but it’s still a slight half step backwards.

Still, I can’t quite deny the fun involved with The Suicide Squad. For all the jagged rocks this DC Extended Universe has had to navigate, this is another welcome move following Birds of Prey. Gunn doesn’t waste the opportunity to leave his personal stamp, brightening the mood and leaving Ayer’s tone-deaf entity buried in the dirt. The task he sets out is easily accomplished, though still not without fixable stumbles. Thankfully, they won’t deter for long this otherwise crude and quirky summer treat. And in a year where our go-to franchises have been slow to reawaken, with wobbles expected, I’ll call that satisfactory. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)

The Suicide Squad opens in theaters and at home on HBO Max this weekend; make sure to stay through the credits; rated R for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity; 132 minutes.