Synopsis: When a military coup in the island nation of Corto Maltese results in sensitive military intelligence falling into the wrong hands, ruthless US government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) ‘recruits’ a motley crew of criminals to serve as a black ops infiltration team and destroy whatever dirty secrets they encounter, by any means necessary.
1. What a difference the definite article makes. The first Suicide Squad (2016) was an execrable turd of a movie whose one redeeming quality (the casting of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn) was continually blighted by its leering male gaze. Everything else about it was bad in the least entertaining possible way, with not even the batshit WTFery of Batman vs. Superman to distract from the muddled mess onscreen. I will not go through how bad the first movie is (see Dan Olson’s excellent Youtube video below if you want to know more) beyond simply noting that it is the worst case example of how franchise obligations and corporate agendas can sink a movie – it is three (bad) movies messily cobbled together in a cynical attempt to appeal to as many demographics as possible, and it fails miserably in all of its goals. So with all that said, it pleases me to note that The Suicide Squad is an improvement in every way possible, and actually comes close to being a damn fine movie thanks to the fact that it is clearly the singular vision of one very talented filmmaker. Suicide Squad was damned by committee, and Warner Bros has clearly learned its lesson this time round, stepping out of the way to allow James Gunn to do his anarchic ultraviolent schtick with next to no interference (save one major element which I have a nagging suspicion about), and the result is a superhero movie that feels refreshingly personal.
2. It helps, of course, that Warners snapped up one of the very few directors who could reasonably be called an auteur in this particular genre. (1) The Guardians Of The Galaxy movies bear his unmistakeable mix of wicked humour and surprisingly moving sentimentality, and are clearly unique among the assembly-line products of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, The Suicide Squad probably hews even closer to Gunn’s sensibilities, thanks to its R-rating, which it earns through dialogue dripping with profanity and violent action scenes overflowing with lovingly rendered gore. Surprisingly, this does not have the same faux-edgy effect that plagued previous ‘adult’ superhero movies like Batman vs. Superman or even this movie’s predecessor. Instead, Gunn’s The Suicide Squad feels more like a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon, taking its violence and vulgarity to such a ridiculous extreme that you can almost feel the filmmaker nudging you in the ribs and winking. Tone is such a difficult thing to get right, but Gunn is a master in this aspect, lending the film a blessed breeziness and lightness of touch that ensures the film remains consistently entertaining. There is just so much expertise on display, from the fluid motion of the camera to the excellent use of montage, with the opening credits serving as one of the cheekiest gimmicks I’ve ever seen, introducing a cast of characters with half of them already dead. Gunn’s imprint can also be seen on the stylishness of the direction, eschewing the usual ho-hum CGI-sweetened shots for some real moments of cleverness, such as a fight scene shot through the curved reflection of a helmet, an inventively staged sequence involving two characters one-upping each other as they kill their way through a bunch of guards, and a lateral tracking shot that resembles the famous hammer fight in Oldboy.
3. Yet Gunn’s real hallmark has always been the sentimental streak lurking beneath the ultraviolent comedy, and this is where The Suicide Squad really shines. The previous movie had about half a character arc in total, whereas this one has them in spades, leaning in particular on a host of daddy and mommy issues to tie the disparate characters together. In particular, what Gunn does with the tragicomic figure of David Dastmalchian’s Polka Dot Man has to be seen to be believed, thanks to a very literal interpretation of having to kill your past. Much like Guardians, every single major character (who does not die during the opening orgy of violence) has a clear and comprehensible arc, and this leads to the moment when they decide to become a team and actually do some good feeling both earned and satisfying. Beyond the singular character arcs, the web of interpersonal dynamics has been clearly thought out, with each character interacting with another in a very different way. Take Idris Elba’s Bloodsport. His character foil is the similarly skilled but philosophically different Peacemaker (John Cena). He treats Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) with fondness as a surrogate daughter. He regards Polka Dot Man with a mixture of pity and revulsion. And so on and so forth. There is nothing earthshattering about the character work that takes place in this movie, but for the DCEU, any film that has competently portrayed character motivations, interactions, and growth automatically falls in its upper echelons. Beyond the emotional foundation, The Suicide Squad is shockingly (for a Hollywood blockbuster) critical of American foreign policy. It is unambiguously blunt in its critique of US interference in Latin America, from the propping up of foreign dictators to the use of offshore sites to conduct unsavoury business. Don’t get me wrong, no one is going to mistake this for Lars von Trier, but it’s rare (and refreshing) to see an American movie of this scale be so honest about the many (many, many, MANY) terrible things the US has done under the excuse of ‘freedom and liberty’.
4. It also helps when your core cast is this good. As the de facto protagonist of the movie, Idris Elba gives a quite excellent performance as Bloodsport, which invites further comparisons to Suicide Squad due to the fact that he is essentially playing the same character as Will Smith’s Deadshot. Unlike Smith though, who was content to coast through on his usual movie star charisma, Elba actually acts, giving an extremely credible portrayal of what could have been a stereotypical world-weary mercenary with a heart of gold. He is ably flanked by John Cena, who is slowly proving himself to be a fine comic actor with a wonderful deadpan. (2) The previously mentioned David Dastmalchian gives a wonderfully bathetic performance as Polka Dot Man, and it speaks to the strength of the acting and the filmmaking that it can consistently make the character the butt of the joke while creating a real empathy for him. Former Guardians cast member Sylvester Stallone returns as King Shark/Nanaue, who will almost certainly be this film’s breakout CGI character, a la Groot. However, special credit must go to Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag and Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2. Flag was essentially just a stereotypical military jock in the first movie, with nothing remotely interesting about Kinnaman’s performance other than the fact that he got to deliver the best ever line of exposition (linked below). However, Kinnaman really redeems himself in this movie. His second go-round as Flag is much improved, giving the character a real sense of integrity while also creating a very lived-in friendly chemistry with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. As for Melchior, she makes a fine Hollywood debut as a character who turns out to be the heart and soul of the movie. It is a very promising performance by an actor who will be one to watch for the future. (3)
5. You will notice that I have avoided talking about one character up until now. It’s time to address the red and white elephant in the room. Harley Quinn is almost entirely superfluous to the central plot of The Suicide Squad, and her presence not only feels shoehorned, but almost actively derails the movie, particularly in its second act. Again, I will go on record as saying that Robbie’s casting was pretty much the only good thing about the previous movie, and she has gone on to own the character at an almost RDJ-as-Tony-Stark level. And Robbie’s performance in this film is as good as it has been in Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey, which is to say, very. Yet it is undeniable that she spends a good half of her onscreen time involved in a romantic subplot that makes little to no sense and that has next to no overall impact on the main plot. It is also extra galling when she finally rejoins the main team because of the chemistry she exhibits with Elba, Kinnaman and Dastmalchian, which makes me wonder why exactly she was off having her own little pointless side adventure until the final act. My running theory is that with a star of Robbie’s stature and a breakout character like Harley, there was probably significant pressure to ramp up her screen time and give Harley more to do, regardless of how it would affect the pacing of the movie. Furthermore, the entire Harley subplot feels reverse engineered to put her in a ball gown and combat boots, which while a huge upgrade from her costume of ‘basically naked’ in Suicide Squad, cannot help but feel overdetermined and artificial. It is the only loose end of a tightly constructed narrative, and I can’t help but wish that Harley had just been deployed as an entertaining part of the ensemble rather than pushed front and centre to the detriment of the rest of the movie.
6. However, this sop to marketability is not fatal to the overall enjoyability of The Suicide Squad, which still manages to be one of the more unique and personal superhero movies for quite a while. Its winning combination of over-the-top violence, non-stop barrage of jokes, and surprisingly resonant themes would be enough for a strong piece of blockbuster entertainment, but where this movie excels is in its character work. Each of the core cast (sans Harley, unfortunately) has been clearly conceived, written and performed with a rigorous attention to their individual emotional journey as well as a strong sense of the interpersonal dynamics within the team. At its very best (which is about 75% of the time), The Suicide Squad moves with a deftness that feels refreshing when contrasted with its increasingly ponderous brethren. James Gunn’s control of his craft remains as excellent as ever, and the skilful way in which he manipulates the tone of his movie and audience expectation might even rival his previous high point of Guardians Of The Galaxy. If anything, The Suicide Squad might be the closest thing to Gunn’s B-movie days at Troma Entertainment, except with a multi-million dollar budget. It’s a rare thing in the modern blockbuster landscape, a nasty, gory, bloody romp with lashings of heart, wit and personality, and that alone makes it worth highly recommending, even if the final product appears to have been diluted with some level of corporate interference.
- It’s really just Gunn, Waititi (who has a cameo in this one) and as much as it pains me to say it, Zack Snyder. The rest are either competent journeymen like the Russos or more personal filmmakers who clamp down on a lot of their idiosyncrasies like Ryan Coogler. And before you say it, Christopher Nolan doesn’t count, seeing that he basically made a self-contained set of films that just happened to star Batman instead of being ensconced in the labyrinthine cinematic universes that exist today.
- Also, Gunn seems to have a knack for casting wrestlers and drawing good comic performances out of them. First Bautista, now Cena.
- Also, Viola Davis is Viola Davis. Nothing more needs to be said.