Film Review: The Suicide Squad is violent, unprincipled, and very, very fun!

Arguably one of the best marketing campaigns ever afforded for a blockbuster title, 2016’s Suicide Squad was ultimately a victim of its own hype.  After the DC brand suffered disappointment with the reaction to Batman v Superman, David Ayer’s impressively stacked line-up of second-tier characters and their super villainous mentalities seemed poised to right the studio’s wrongs.

As much as the filmmaker promised a dark, unhinged aesthetic, the candy-coated, vintage-soundtracked promotional material painted a different picture, but it was one audiences were all on board for.  I don’t need to go into how Suicide Squad ultimately underwhelmed the masses – critics weren’t kind (it currently rates only a 26% on Rotten Tomatoes) and even though audiences pushed it past $740 million worldwide, they too weren’t overtly favourable towards it – but there can’t help but be a certain respect towards its comic intent and the fact that it gave birth to one of the greatest canon character iterations of our time in Margot Robbie‘s portrayal of Harley Quinn.

Given the absurdity at the core of Suicide Squad, Ayer seemed to try too hard to adhere to the superhero mould instead of embracing the immoral lunacy that these characters lean into.  James Gunn, however? Well, he understands the assignment.  After risking the more traditional road of Marvel (at least at that point in their narratives) with the out-of-the-box temperament of Guardians of the Galaxy, the left-of-centre minded filmmaker gets that this Squad has to remain unprincipled and, most importantly, really, very incredibly fun.

Enter, The Suicide Squad (emphasis on the The).  Though technically a companion piece to Ayer’s effort, Gunn has very much restructured the brand that it can sit entirely on its own accord.  It helps to be familiar with the “first” film – and, to some extent, Robbie’s wild solo piece Birds of Prey, an outing that has much more in common with Gunn’s vision than Ayer’s – but its messy plot-line makes it easy to ignore if so desired; think of it as a test run, if you will.

Whilst the majority of the Suicide Squad ironically survived the last film, only a handful of faces have opted to return, though under the chaotic watch of Gunn this is a film that genuinely feels like all bets are off when it comes to the survival of its cast, no matter how prominent a player they are.  Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, just as stern as prior, if not more so), the head of a US black-ops outfit, once again, recruits her team of super villains to assist in a deadly mission in exchange for time off their considerable sentences; Harley Quinn (Robbie, just as much as a live-wire as ever), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) are the familiar faces back on board.

There’s a considerable roster of roped-in felons similarly on hand to perform Waller’s dirty work, a mission that’ll send them to a South American island where the intent is to stop a mad scientist (a perfectly cast Peter Capaldi) from unleashing a giant weaponised starfish.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The fact that Gunn is able to centre a film around the eventual “big bad” being a starfish should clue you in to how completely illogical proceedings will be.  Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a hitman who isn’t overtly dissimilar to Will Smith’s Deadshot from the first film, Peacemaker (a hulking John Cena), who is essentially Bloodsport’s equal in terms of capabilities, but hones a more psychotic patriotism, Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a bank robber with the ability to mind-control rats, Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), whose powers are just as ludicrous as you’d expect, given his name, and King Shark (rather endearingly voiced by Sylvester Stallone), a walking/talking Jaws/Home Simpson mash-up who, as he promises, will only eat the bad guys, are the more prominently focused Squad members on Waller’s radar, all hoping their violently-laced skills will be enough to get them home alive and a few years lighter regarding their respective sentences.

Though the first film admittedly had its share of intentionally humorous exchanges – Robbie very much emerged as the sole reason the film had any wit to speak of – Gunn’s script is a much more confident product.  It doesn’t play everything for laughs, at least not enough for it to crack under its own eccentricities, but it understands the balance of comedy and odd emotion it needs to project in order for these incredibly outlandish characters and situations to resonate; if you don’t find yourself warming to Ratcatcher 2 and King Shark then, quite frankly, you’re dead inside!

Elba and Cena’s constant back-and-forth over who is the more supreme shot earns plenty of farcical mileage, and Robbie, as before, further proves her effortless charisma as the unpredictable Harley, here earning some of the film’s best lines and action, with one stand-out sequence being a massacre sequence where she envisions each bullet and blood spray as bursts of colourful floral arrangements.  On the note of its violent content, Gunn goes directly for the jugular and gives zero fucks in the process.  Given his past experiences with the horror genre and, more specifically, the low-budgeted, splatter-friendly studio Troma Entertainment, it makes complete sense that he would lean into that gory aesthetic.  The result is an unashamed orgy of blood and guts that are as shocking as they are riotous.

Whilst Marvel are essentially more consistent with their quality, DC at least have the stones to try something different.  Their swings for the fences don’t always land, but you can’t accuse them of never trying.  The connected universe of these films may be wildly at odds with one another – it’s hard to fathom that brutality such as this technically sits alongside the more pure iterations of Wonder Woman and Shazam – but their intent on staying true to their origins remain uniform.  In allowing John Ostrander‘s material to be realised in such an unapologetic fashion, this Squad emerges as canon gold.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Suicide Squad is screening in Australian theatres from August 5th, 2021, where accessible. It will be released simultaneously in American theatres and digitally on HBO Max on August 6th.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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