Second time’s the charm
One little article separates James Gunn's The Suicide Squad from David Ayer's Suicide Squad. But, oh, what a difference a word makes.
Just five years after the trainwreck that prompted Warner Bros. to retool its DC Comics universe, James Gunn's nearly wholesale re-do exists in an entirely different movie galaxy.
The Suicide Squad may go down as one of the greatest, and quickest, do-overs in blockbusterdom.
Like Gunn's two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, The Suicide Squad is a chaotic, freewheeling inversion of much of what's expected in a comic book movie.
Here, heroes die (a lot of them). Most aren't really heroes, either. Some aren't even human. But they have been sprung from prison for a kamikaze mission on behalf of the US government. In this motliest of crews, no one has anything like a sleek shield or a clean caped suit.
Early on in The Suicide Squad we get a sense that the mission is dubious.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) summons a bunch of prisoners for Task Force X programme. Exactly who are to be our main characters and who's head is about to be sliced like a melon takes some sorting out.
But in a clown-car of a superhero movie the most central protagonist is Idris Elba's Bloodsport, a mercenary only coaxed into joining the team when Waller threatens prison time or worse for his teenage daughter.
With him are Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a laconic, warm-hearted millennial with a very polite pet rat named Sebastian on her shoulder.
The skills of Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) are initially hard to decipher, but the shy, stunted Abner proves surprisingly capable, even if he, himself, sheepishly apologises for having such a “flamboyant” power.
There is also John Cena's Peacemaker, easily the most jingoist of the bunch, a kind of Captain America knockoff.
Just what each squad member feels about their home country and its role in international backwaters is prominently in play in The Suicide Squad.
The gang is sent to a dictator-controlled South American island amid a populist uprising to keep safe a secret, locked-away alien species housed in a concrete tower.
This is the sinister unseen side to American glory, a monstrous extra-terrestrial starfish picked up on a seemingly triumphant space mission.
Unclear is whether the task force is there to prevent an apocalyptic threat or shroud a dubious offshore US experiment.
But there are others, too. Nanaue (voiced with monosyllabic perfection by Sylvester Stallone) is a worthy heir to Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy and a man-eating reminder to how very close to cartoon Gunn's movie is.
The group's more serious, highly-trained field leader, Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag, is a kind of straight man to the anti gang in the same way that dramatic, ballad-singing actors starred alongside the Marx brothers.
Also in the mix is Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn. It's her third film in that character but the best yet in capturing Quinn's chipper mania. A brief romantic interest tells her he adores her for symbolising anti-American fervour. Within minutes, he's lying dead on the floor.
Does The Suicide Squad overdo it? Of course.
It's a little absurd to even ask that about a movie with a talking shark that rips bodies in half and interstitial debates about, for instance, whether the phrase “tighty whities” is racist.
Gunn throws so much into his superhero collider that he sometimes sacrifices depth (backstories are poignant but thin) for wit and idiosyncrasy.
But as over-the-top and thoroughly R-rated as The Suicide Squad is, it's not nihilistic.
That's maybe a questionable argument to make for a film that includes an inside-the-body close-up of a dagger piercing a beating heart. But as much as Gunn steers his movies into chaos, they have a surprising amount of heart and thoughtfulness to them.
Within The Suicide Squad it is not only a negotiation with American power, and its depiction in comic-book movies, but a heartfelt if extreme gallery of damaged souls.
It's a kind of genuinely tender freak show. The upside of selecting DC characters from the Z-list is that Gunn has free reign in moulding and shaping them as he likes. And, as in Guardians, his heroes all derive their strange powers from emotional trauma.
They are outcasts, weirdos, laughing stocks and whatever you call Nanaue.
That makes The Suicide Squad — as ridiculous as it is to say about a movie that renders a bloody rampage with gushes of animated daisies and birdies — kind of beautiful. Plus, the shark in pyjamas is funny.
The Suicide Squad, a Warner Bros release, is rated R16 by the Motion Picture Association of America for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity. Running time: 132 minutes. Three stars out of four.