As soon as James Gunn – writer and director of Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – was hired as writer and director of the reboot AND sequel to Suicide Squad, part of me was thinking “oh he’s absolutely going to smash this”, but another part of me was thinking that DC was inevitably going to shit the proverbial bed on this, given the first “version” was so bad.
Thankfully, the first part of me was spot on, with The Suicide Squad an excellent, hilarious, gory and utterly nonsensical comic book film – but amid the extremely gory violence and jokes, its characters are relatable and great (as you might expect from the man who made you give a shit about a tree that can say three words and a sassy raccoon). Gunn’s once again working wonders with groups of freaks, outcasts and psychopaths – and it’s clear that he’s one of the best at what he does, when it comes to creating relatable characters out of overly OTT subject matter.
Just to quickly summarise, this film sees Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) once again pick a Dirty Dozen-style troupe of DC supervillains to undertake some dirty work, with everyone expendable and nobody safe. Choosing master assassin Bloodsport/Robert DuBois (Idris Elba) to reluctantly lead this ragtag bunch, Waller amasses a huge team to infiltrate the (fictional) south American state of Corto Maltese, which has just seen a coup, and which has a former Nazi experimental lab that may or may not contain something very dangerous (and very weird). So who’s gonna make it, and what will they find…?
Starting again on the character side of things, and keeping a focus on Gunn, this film is an absolute riot of colour, style, laughs and splatter, and you not only enjoy watching this bunch of tools butt heads but you end up caring about a fair amount of them, with even the least sympathetic still far funnier or entertaining than many of the villains we usually see in blockbuster action films.
This is a huge deal when you consider this is a DC movie, and bar Shazam! and Birds of Prey (plus the peerless Wonder Woman, still the best DC movie in its modern iteration) The Suicide Squad is a completely different, more violent and much improved move from the studio. You could see this as Gunn writing and directing anything with a team of misfits perfectly, but here he’s allowed to indulge his background in the shlocky B-movie Troma studio system, meaning we get fucktons of swearing, some raunch and a great degree of chunky gore.
And my god does he make that a hilarious, brilliant element. It means that the unpredictability of the film’s large main cast making it through safely is immediately undercut in an absolutely blood-soaked prologue/intro, which was incredible. All I’ll say is don’t get attached to anyone, but suffice to say the tone is set by this scene and the idea that no-one is safe persists even through to the final scenes.
A tangible series of sets (Warner Brothers built some of its biggest sets for this film in a long time) and location shooting, alongside minimal (but effective) CGI gives everything a more authentic and gritty feel. The action is crunchy and stylised at times (most notably in a Harley Quinn escape/brawl that cleverly alights on her “unique” way of perceiving the world), while the aforementioned CGI is most notably excellent in the character of King Shark, a shark with feet and arms that’s essentially like a far more dangerous, fatal Groot voiced by Sylvester Stallone (yes, REALLY).
The plot is slightly derivative (but then the entire premise of the Suicide Squad is derivative of The Dirty Dozen), but has enough unpredictability and novel elements that you’d never really find it boring. Gunn shakes things up with flashbacks and cutbacks when you’ve seen one thing happen, so that you see something from another perspective, keeping some of the more twisty elements of the plot a different spin. This is ably assisted by Fred Raskin and Christian Wagner’s editing, which is tight, quick and slickly done to match the film’s effervescent air.
Musically, as you might expect, Gunn’s got a suite of classic tracks to accompany much of the plot, which aren’t shoehorned in like the forgettable Suicide Squad. These range from Johnny Cash to the Fratellis (!), the Pixies and more, while John Murphy’s score does able work when required. The look of the film is quite faded and drained at times, but at others colour explodes out (usually when Harley is concerned), and Henry Braham’s cinematography makes the most of the locations and superpowers on display.
When it comes to the cast, there are some excellent standouts and many near-cameos that are brilliant even despite their limited time. Elba is the big star and one of the best parts, Gunn’s excellent decision to keep him English adding a further level of bitter hilarity to a very cynical, abrasive character. Every time Bloodsport (who can make guns out of his supersuit) gets fed up (and this happens OFTEN), Elba balances a world-weary, cynical leadership with outright, brash British sarcasm, and does a far better job than the previous film’s Will Smith ever did.
Margot Robbie, you’ll not be surprised to hear after Birds of Prey, has absolutely stolen the role of Harley Quinn and made her her own, while keeping the leery and problematic origins of the character firmly forgotten. It’s almost as if the character’s been saved from a worse fate by the actress and recent collaborators, and Gunn is no different. His interpretation of Quinn, with Robbie, means the character builds on her last appearance to be both more capable and aggressive as well as more dangerously unpredictable. It might sound like a contradiction, but Robbie’s Quinn is both more human and more unhinged, which makes so much of her appearance here the best portrayal yet.
A real surprise for me was Daniela Melchior, a young Portuguese actress, who plays the hilariously-named Ratcatcher 2. A young, millennial (a joke at this is very well done) who’s not really done much to deserve being part of the squad, she can control rats, which proves to be both shockingly useful and entertainingly controversial to the rest of the squad, with Melchior excellent at both the comedic and emotional scenes she finds herself in with some proper heavyweights. I hope we see more of her and more of Ratcatcher 2!
However, perhaps the most hilarious breakout success is John Cena’s Peacemaker, an unbelievable feat of casting and character. Like Captain America if he thought killing everyone would bring peace, Cena is a laugh riot as a meathead constantly engaging in dick-measuring with Elba’s fellow assassin, and the former wrestler shows once again that Dwayne Johnson is not the only charismatic, hilarious and surprisingly good actor to come out of that sport. He’s no slouch with the action either, and the character already has his own TV spinoff coming.
When it comes to the rest of the cast, David Dastmalchian really stands out, the recognisable character actor imbuing an absolutely ridiculous character (Polka Dot Man, who fires fatal polka dots at people and has SERIOUS mother issues) with real sincerity and a doomed, damaged sensibility. He’s absolutely great, and it’s nice to see an actor so often stereotyped given something a bit meatier and more soulful to play than just “the weirdo”.
Davis doesn’t appear much as Waller, but gives it her steely, angry all – she may not have superpowers, but Waller is perhaps even more malignant and nihilistic than her charges, with the actress terrifying in short bursts, and clearly loving hamming it up for every second she’s on screen. Joel Kinnaman gets a degree of redemption as her point man Rick Flag, and the actor shows his comedy chops too (he’s often given more serious roles, so it’s nice to see Gunn giving him the chance to show that off). Jai Courtney also returns as the absolutely stupid Captain Boomerang, the Aussie enjoying the chance to gurn his face off again as a grungy, leery joke of a character.
Otherwise, Michael Rooker is his usual standoffish, badass self as Savant, a weirdo with incredible ball control (steady), who we see the squad through with fresh eyes. Alice Braga plays a revolutionary on the island with her usual steely power, while Peter Capaldi – as bizarre evil scientist The Thinker – is essentially his Doctor Who with electrodes sticking out of his head, and absolutely no regard for humanity or morality.
Stallone’s voicing of King Shark (motion captured by Steve Agee, who also plays Waller’s snarky number two/IT guy) is sublime, much like an advanced version of Vin Diesel’s Groot. Both parts of the performance create a sympathetic, hilarious chump of a character, but Stallone imbues even one word responses with childlike wonder or sadness. The best part is, often one minute later, this CGI dad bod HUMANOID shark tears someone in half or such like. A perfect microcosm of what this film is!
As for the best of the rest, Flula Borg is distractingly weird as Javelin (guess what his power is), Nathan Fillion is absolutely, sincerely ridiculous as perhaps the shittest comic book character ever created, and Pete Davidson (a US comedian and constant source of internet gossip) is smarm personified as backstabbing mercenary Blackguard.
If you couldn’t tell already, I greatly enjoyed this film, and highly recommend it for anyone who appreciates James Gunn’s deft handling of weirdos, strong character development, stylish action and OTT violence. A sequel would be most welcome, and Gunn being reinstated at Marvel for Guardians 3 means we’ve not got long for our next portion of loveable, dysfunctional losers soundtracked by classic tunes.