Friday, August 6, 2021

James Gunn delivers a delightfully gruesome yet heartfelt blockbuster with The Suicide Squad


There were a lot of things I expected from The Suicide Squad, but I never thought it would be spliced up into titled segments like a Wes Anderson movie!

That's one of many surprises nestled within the newest movie from James Gunn, which is quintessentially ripped from the filmmaker's ID and prior works. Otherworldly visitors that can control human beings? Check. Something shady going down in a South American location that exploits how much or how little human beings care about one another? Check. A gaggle of comic book characters forced to work together to stop some great evil? Also check. No cartoon cats that want to make out with Josh Duhamel, though. Sorry folks.

Rather than rendering The Suicide Squad a Greatest Hits compilation of Gunn's prior works, though, the presence of these elements is a testament to how much this director has put his own personality into the proceedings. Plus, if you've seen the best of Gunn's preceding directorial efforts, then you know he can inject so much fun into his cinema. That's just what he's brought to The Suicide Squad, which is a rollicking good time soaked with both blood and affection for its costumed weirdos. 

The Suicide Squad picks up with Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) using an assortment of incarcerated supervillains to infiltrate the fictional South American country of Corto Maltese. Among these evildoers are Bloodspot (Idris Elba), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), the violent patriotic Peacemaker (John Cena), the quietly tormented Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior). Given a bomb in their neck that will go off if they don't follow all of Waller's orders, this motley crew must eliminate some world-threatening scientific endeavor known as Project Starfish. Of course, given that this crew includes a giant shark who wants to eat anything in sight, that could be a little tricky.

The Suicide Squad continues Gunn's streak of loading up a story with all kinds of grimy dark humor and bleakness but counterbalancing all of that with genuine moments of sweetness. This is especially apparent in Ratcatcher 2, who early on states that she'd rather die from trusting others than living a detached life. That's the thing I enjoy most about Gunn's works. Even going back to the days of Slither, the guy regularly puts on the airs in his movies of being too cool for schmaltz before revealing a softer side that does, in fact, pride the idea of people working together or sacrificing themselves. That always makes for a fun combination, especially in a project like The Suicide Squad.

This particular production also sees Gunn returning to R-rated territory for the first time since Super in April 2011. Comic book movies with R-ratings are no longer unprecedented thanks to the Deadpool movies, Birds of Prey, and Logan. However, there is a uniqueness to how Gunn utilizes all the wacky possibilities of R-rated carnage. He unleashes a flurry of gory mayhem more akin to an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon than something aiming to use the more adult-friendly rating for more "realistic" means. It's mighty entertaining to watch the various ways limbs go flying across the screen, particularly in an opening sequence that establishes just how vividly violent the proceedings will be.

Similarly, it's also cool how Gunn uses the loopy psychological headspace of Harley Quinn as an excuse to dabble in more stylized visuals for The Suicide Squad's most memorable hand-to-hand fight scene. As Quinn lays waste to too many goons to count, brightly-colored hand-drawn flowers and birds accompany her carnage. The vivid color palette makes for a giddily madcap contrast to all the bloodshed she unleashes as well as an effective way to contrast her big fight scene to all the other action sequences in the proceedings. It's also a great showcase for just how superbly Margot Robbie has come into this role, she's on par with Christopher Reeve as Superman in terms of perfect comic book movie casting.

The whole cast of The Suicide Squad delivers sublime work that helps the film click as a whole. Gunn leans hard on the rapport between the individual players and that pays off in dividends thanks to richly detailed turns from people like Daniela Melchior. Also great to see Idris Elba finally get a substantive role in a big-budget production that utilizes his gifts as an actor, what a concept! The standout of the main ensemble, however, is David Dastmalchian, whose quietly tormented depiction of Polka Dot Man is such a thoughtfully realized creation. Every time he walks on-screen, you just wanna give him a hug. In the hands of this actor, a DC Comics punchline becomes someone far more fascinating.

The Suicide Squad isn't a perfect film, because those don't exist. A handful of the needle drops and jokes don't quite work as well as they could. Plus, though it's very cool to see a big comic book movie explicitly tackle a political issue like imperialism (and coming down decidedly against it), I'd be curious to hear from South American writers how the film's portrayal of Corto Maltese (a fictitious country) aligns with long-established American cinema stereotypes about individuals from South America.

What needs to work in The Suicide Squad, though, works like gangbusters and it's just so fun to watch, especially since Gunn keeps delivering a bunch of effective pathos to accompany all the moments where King Shark graphically devours human beings. Suffice it to say, The Suicide Squad is slightly better than its predecessor, even without "my bodyguard Katana...who can cut you down like she's mowing the lawn."

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