Director James Gunn's new take on The Suicide Squad succeeds in gloriously gory fashion where its 2016 predecessor failed

click to enlarge If you were tasked with saving the world, wouldn't you bring a CGI shark along?
If you were tasked with saving the world, wouldn't you bring a CGI shark along?

I hated 2016's Suicide Squad ... and I love this brand-spankin'-new The Suicide Squad. Like the 2016 movie, this one is based on the comic books about literal psychopaths let loose to do as much damage as possible in the putative name of freedom and democracy.

About the previous movie, I said it "should be grim, bitter, and as horrifyingly alluring as Hannibal Lecter." But it wasn't. This one? Well, perhaps love is too pleasant a word. For this movie is all those things, and more. It is incredibly gory, positively reveling in the sort of extreme violence that does massive bodily harm to anyone who gets in the way of it. It's funny, but only in a bleak way. It is utterly lacking in sentiment (the first one drenched us in it), and yet it engages you with its psychopaths in ways that you may find disturbing.

That The in the title? That is writer-director James Gunn's way of spanking the 2016 film and sending it off to the corner to think about what it did. This one is the definite article.

Gunn keeps only those members of the team worth telling another story about. Viola Davis is back as Amanda Waller, the prison warden who runs this dubious secret program, offering the monsters in her charge years off their sentences in exchange for accepting missions from her. But this time Davis is allowed to go full bore, her immense screen presence and power fueling the suspicion that Waller is as much a psychopath as her prisoners. Joel Kinnaman is back as Colonel Rick Flag, the soldier who has to wrangle the monsters in the field. He's not a psychopath, and this time around he is much more our stand-in for how he inevitably gets caught up in concern for their well-being.

Also returning is punky social irritant and force of nature — like a tornado is a force of nature — Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, who steals the movie). Gunn has hardly been the most feminist of filmmakers in the past, but he manages not to shoot Quinn like he's drooling all over her, and has written her a subplot about bad boyfriends and the romantic fantasies that are fed to women that lead some of us to get involved with the wrong sort of guy. (Princess tropes will come in for heavy snarking.)

The mission this time involves a coup on the fictional South American island nation of Corto Maltese, where a secret military weapons project has fallen into hands not friendly to the United States. So the Squad is being sent in to destroy it. Along for the ride with Quinn and Flag are absolute lunatics Peacemaker (John Cena), who isn't kidding when he says he believes in "peace at any price," and assassin Bloodsport (Idris Elba), whose unloving relationship with his teenage daughter (Storm Reid) would appear to be a smack at a similar dynamic in the 2016 movie that was portrayed with absurd schmaltz.

But the other members of the Squad don't seem to be actual psychopaths. Dangerous, yes, but for reasons understandable and full of pathos. Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) controls rats, a pretty useful superpower, as we see. Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who bears the burden of an unlikely superpower, is a deeply damaged survivor of extreme child abuse. King Shark, who is a shark-man (CGI, with the voice of Sylvester Stallone), is merely very lonely and always hungry. He has a taste for human flesh, it's true, but it doesn't appear he has a lot of other dietary options. And he doesn't chow down indiscriminately.

The Suicide Squad is not without a sense of morality, even given its protagonists. It's not subtle, but Gunn shivs in pointed commentary on American military adventurism and its carceral state: Shouldn't we consider this psychopathic, too? But this is mostly a movie about style: The energy here is feverish and anarchic, winkingly aping conventions of the 1970s grindhouse flicks it has more in common with than most superhero movies. This is not a movie for children. This is not a movie for many adults, either. Its cynicism is exhausting. I wonder if we will look back 10 years from now and mark this as the beginning of the end of the current cycle of comic-book movies as bombastic cinematic explosions. Because it's difficult to see where they can go from here except smaller, quieter and kinder. ♦

Three And a Half Stars THE SUICIDE SQUAD
Rated R
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis

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Maryann Johanson

Maryann Johanson