By Jake Wilson
THE SUICIDE SQUAD ★★★★
132 minutes, rated MA
As the writer-director of blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn has several qualities that separate him from his peers, including a genuine ability to go off the rails. This has got him in trouble, notably in 2018 when attention was called to his old habit of tweeting tasteless jokes on subjects like paedophilia: on brand for him personally, less so for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which after all is owned by Disney.
That was enough to get Gunn fired, at least for a few months. During this wilderness period, he was recruited by the proprietors of the rival DC Extended Universe to mastermind a one-off project: the story of a group of scumbags rotting in jail who are railroaded into a do-or-die mission that offers an outside chance at redemption. Who says comic-book movies can’t be personal?
The upshot is a film about losers with the swagger of a winner, and enough of a crass fever dream to make Zack Snyder’s recent Army of the Dead look comparatively by-the-numbers. Gory, sentimental, brazenly adolescent, and never short on imagination, The Suicide Squad could be described as the essence of Gunn, if not exactly the film of a free man.
This is a so-called “soft reboot” of David Ayer’s 2016 Suicide Squad, which made its expected millions but was widely labelled a dud. A few actors reappear, including Margot Robbie as now-beloved breakout character Harley Quinn – a sort of psycho Tinker Bell – and Viola Davis as ruthless puppet-mistress Amanda Waller, who oversees a Louisiana prison that serves as a holding pen for rogue “metahumans”.
Once again, Waller hand-picks a line-up of uniquely skilled prisoners for a risky black ops mission, fitting them with tracking devices as well as explosives that can be detonated if they go off-script. The groundwork laid by Ayer allows Gunn to re-establish this premise fairly quickly, supplying a proof of concept that thins out the ranks of his ensemble cast.
For those still standing, the mission entails breaking into military research facility on the South American island of Corto Maltese and destroying all traces of the mysterious Project Starfish, overseen by the bald, mirthlessly grinning Thinker, who as played by Peter Capaldi somewhat resembles the mad scientist from the 1995 French fantasy The City of Lost Children.
Whether or not Gunn’s brand of splashy horror-comedy floats your boat, on a baseline level he’s an uncommonly skilled filmmaker. He can do structure, he can do dialogue, he knows where to put the camera, and if he’s a little too desperate to keep us entertained at every moment, that’s better than not trying hard enough.
He’s also very astute about casting. Idris Elba, who stars here as the technically augmented assassin Bloodsport, is the kind of actor who can bring emotional reality to any situation whatsoever – a capacity well and truly put to the test here, given that Bloodsport’s allies include a young woman who can summon rats (Daniela Melchior), a mother-fixated weirdo known as the Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), and a talking, walking, man-gobbling shark with the mental capacity of a toddler, voiced by Sylvester Stallone.
All these characters may have originated in DC comic books, but Gunn elaborates on them in a manner all his own, combining pure childish silliness with a love of the grotesque so frank it seems almost equally innocent – especially as the film, for all its provocations, remains nearly as sexless as his work for Disney.
Politics, though, are another matter. However vulnerable the squad members might be in theory, the vast majority of the gruesome deaths in the film are those of Corto Maltese locals (exteriors were shot in Panama, presumably the homeland of many of the extras).
This adds an inescapably queasy dimension to the breezy ultra-violence, especially as Waller is explicitly working for the US government.
I wish Gunn had found a way to avoid implying that the Corto Maltese masses are naturally weaker or stupider than the characters we’re meant to care about. But another part of what separates him from most blockbuster directors is that he’s fully aware of the queasiness – even if he doesn’t quite know what to do with it, beyond treating it as one more dark joke.
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