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- The Suicide Squad
- Written and directed by James Gunn
- Starring Idris Elba, Margot Robbie and John Cena
- Classification R; 131 minutes
- Opens Aug. 6 in theatres across Canada
Sometimes, you just need to watch a humanoid shark tear a man in half. All the better if the fishy beast in question is voiced by Sylvester Stallone. And extra bonus super points if Sly’s slow-grunt delivery (“Mmm, num-num!”) is deliberately aping the caveman cadence of Vin Diesel’s performance as tree-man Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. Such are the low-brow but high-reward pleasures of James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, the most derivative but finely tuned of superhero movies to come out in ages.
The pseudo-sequel’s history is almost worthy of its own comic-book origin story. When Warner Bros. released David Ayer’s original definite-article-not-necessary Suicide Squad in 2016, the movie, which followed a group of DC Comics supervillains tasked with playing heroes in order to shorten their prison sentences, was greeted as the nadir of superhero cinema. Ayer’s brash and crass direction, combined with a script that seemed studio noted to death, resulted in an incoherent mess of franchise ambitions. But the cursed, clanging thing made money (US$746-million around the world, to be exact), and Margot Robbie’s performance as the psychopath/Joker accomplice Harley Quinn struck a chord, so a sequel was inevitable.
Flash forward a few years and a few minor-key industry scandals later – including Gunn’s firing from Disney/Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 because of bad-taste tweets unearthed by right-wing hysterics – and we now have Gunn’s bloody, bold-enough take on the Squad. The writer-director takes the few things that worked in Ayer’s film (Robbie, Viola Davis as ice-cold government higher-up Amanda Waller), the few things that were passably okay (Joel Kinnaman’s military hero Rick Flag) and also Jai Courtney (returning as Aussie bad guy Captain Boomerang), and delivers what is, by any other name, Guardians of the Galaxy: The Hard-R Version.
This is a big-hearted, big-budgeted, big-body count thrill ride that knows exactly what its corporate mission is (keep the DC Extended Universe running) while at the same time fulfilling the I’m-a-bad-widdle-boy whims of its director and ensuring that audiences actually enjoy the full-throated spectacle. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll barf. Probably all at once during the film’s opening minutes, in which a seemingly straight-ahead mission goes from bad to worse to can-they-show-that?
Once Gunn establishes his core group of semi-heroes – including Flag, Quinn and Boomerang, but also Idris Elba’s super-assassin Bloodsport, John Cena’s superduper-assassin Peacemaker and Stallone’s hulking King Shark – the director begins to carefully, gracefully move the mumbo-jumbo plot forward at the same time that he does something remarkable for the genre: establish character and a genuine sense of stakes.
The many, many, many deaths that occur during the film initially act as cruel but effective jokes – nods to the audience that in the end, all of us, humans and meta-humans alike, are just squishy bags of meat. (The violence is also proof that Gunn has not forgotten his low-budget, high-gore beginnings with the Z-grade Troma Studios.) But as The Suicide Squad’s story moves forward and the corpse count ticks higher, we genuinely come to care about who lives and who dies.
If you were so inclined, each character could fit neatly into a Guardians of the Galaxy box. King Shark is Groot by any other name. Bloodsport, a reluctant leader with daddy issues, could be a smoother and deadlier Star-Lord. The buff-but-dense Peacemaker is Drax, the different-hued-and-deadly Quinn is Gamora, and we even get a perverted version of Rocket the Raccoon in the form of the wordless child-killing thing known as Weasel (although he’s also equally a riff on Bill the Cat from Bloom County).
But if this Squad’s players are familiar, then they are also highly calibrated creations designed for maximum entertainment value – a goes-down-smooth blend of humour and heart. It is a surprising and impressive feat aided tremendously by the performers who Gunn assembled to play his rogue’s gallery, including past collaborators (Stallone, Nathan Fillion, Michael Rooker, brother Sean Gunn) and mega-stars Elba, Robbie and Cena, who have charisma and chemistry to burn.
The film’s looney, what-me-worry attitude is also just the kind of palate cleanser that superhero cinema needed after falling into a highly sanitized, highly self-serious rut. A creative stagnation that was personified by Gunn’s most recent film, the lazy and smug Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
While the DCEU films are more determined to colour outside the lines than those within the Marvel Cinematic Universe – this is the company that allowed Zack Snyder to release a four-hour rebuke to studio meddling, after all – it is still an enterprise that insists its products abide by certain rules: missions, Easter eggs, canon connectivity. Gunn’s film has all of that and then some, including a postcredits scene that acts as a coming-soon commercial for a forthcoming HBO Max series. But The Suicide Squad contains something else under its layers of business mandates: a genuinely personal vision. One driven by the fervent belief that these things should be fun, for goodness sake.
Unless things radically change for both the MCU and the DCEU, I suspect that The Suicide Squad might be the most purely enjoyable superhero movie of the decade. Which is good and bad news for Gunn. Shortly after he started work on this film, Disney had a change of heart regarding his social-media history and rehired the director back to work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Something tells me that film won’t feature a walking, talking, shorts-wearing shark squishing the head of a man like a grapefruit. But stranger things can, and with any luck should, happen.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.