REVIEW: The Suicide Squad (2021)

David Dastmalchian, John Cena, Idris Elba, and Daniela Mechior in THE SUICIDE SQUAD — Photo: Jessica Miglio / Warner Bros.

Directed by James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) — Screenplay by James Gunn.

Over the years, I have certainly not tried to hide the fact that I think 2016’s Suicide Squad, which was directed by David Ayer (though he has repeatedly made it clear that the film was essentially taken away from him as a result of studio interference), is, to put it mildly, one of my least favorite films ever made in the superhero genre. That 2016 film certainly reeked of studio interference, it was an almost incoherent mess, it was needlessly grimy and at times quite ugly, it used a decent soundtrack as a crutch and in a way that became incredibly tiring, all the while failing to get you to care about the characters or the relationships they were building. There were some decent things about it, but, on the whole, it felt like someone had tried to turn Ayer’s vision into a shameless imitation of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and that just didn’t work for the film that Ayer had envisioned.

Therefore it felt so right when James Gunn, who with both volumes of his Guardians of the Galaxy-films has made a name for himself as a terrific superhero film-maker, was given the opportunity to make exactly the kind of Suicide Squad follow-up and/or reboot that he wanted to make. Giving a filmmaker a carte blanche may have seemed scary to some studio executives at Warner Bros., but it turns out it was the exact right choice in this case because James Gunn has made the exact kind of movie that I was hoping for back in 2016. James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad knows exactly what it is. It is a no-holds-barred and anti-authoritarian, extremely violent and yet inherently goofy blockbuster film, and it feels like exactly the kind of adrenaline shot that the so-called DC Extended Universe needs right now.

James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, like the 2016 film, again follows the escapades of ‘Task Force X,’ an incarcerated group of supervillains or antiheroes that have been ‘hired’ by director Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis) to complete Black Ops missions in exchange for diminished sentences. But the mission at the center of this film requires more than just a single task force. Unbeknownst to either team, Waller has decided to send out two different teams to the island nation of Corto Maltese, as one of them is meant to be a diversion. One team is led by familiar faces Colonel Rick Flag (played by Joel Kinnaman) and the unpredictable Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie), while the other team consists entirely of strangers and newcomers.

This second Task Force X team is commanded by Robert “Bloodsport” DuBois (played by Idris Elba), an expert marksman who has been convinced to finally join the group to help his daughter, and also includes ‘Peacemaker’ (played by John Cena), a very jingoistic soldier, Nanaue (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), a man-eating anthropomorphic shark, ‘Ratcatcher 2 (played by Daniela Melchior),’ a female bank robber who can control all the world’s rats, and, finally, ‘Polka-Dot Man (played by David Dastmalchian),’ a criminal with ‘mother-issues’ that literally throws polka-dots at his enemies.

Amanda Waller has sent these two Task Force X teams to Corto Maltese for the purpose of destroying the secret and mysterious Nazi-laboratory known as Jotunheim, which houses the secret experiment ‘Project Starfish.’ While on the island nation, Task Force X becomes entangled in the local rebellion that hopes to overthrow the Corto Maltese government and restore peace, and they will eventually find out that there is more to the mission than they initially realized.

James Gunn wastes no time with his first film for DC Comics, as he immediately lets his audience know exactly what kind of film this is. The first five-to-ten minutes are very fast-paced and before you know it several characters have been served up as cinematic cannon fodder. The Suicide Squad more than earns its R-rating and is in no way, shape, or form suitable viewing for children. It is an extremely violent, no-holds-barred action film with several adult jokes. Gunn has removed the grime of the 2016 film in exchange for a lot of blood and several shocking death scenes.

But the main reason why I think this film succeeds is that Gunn knows exactly how to make these characters work. Gunn knows that to truly understand these characters, this movie, and this genre he has to fully embrace all of their oddities, the subgenre’s inherent goofiness, and the cinematic universe’s oddly lovable comic booky villains, all the while letting the violence flow freely on-screen as if it was drawn up in issues for readers to gawk and marvel at. The movie keeps you on your toes and it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which I think was especially important. Gunn has gone for an almost gleeful irreverence and that fits so well with these characters and their escapades.

One of the things that quickly worried me in the film’s opening minutes is that its fast pace would become exhausting and overwhelm the film, but, not unlike Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, Gunn’s film has a tendency to jump back and forth structurally with the addition of helpful and clever title cards, and that helps to make the film breathe, while you get to catch your breath as an audience-member. That, however, isn’t to say that the film doesn’t become exhausting at some point. I think one of my only issues with the film is that it is slightly overlong, which I, especially, felt in the last ten-to-twenty minutes of the film.

With the 2016 film, I was also frustrated with the fact that the character relationships sometimes felt unearned, and that you ended up not caring about several of the main characters. That, however, couldn’t be farther from the truth with this year’s sequel/reboot, The Suicide Squad. In my review of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, I noted that James Gunn “has an ability to build characters and then ultimately rip their – and our – hearts out,” and I feel the same way after having watched this film.

You end up truly caring about many of these characters, including those characters that may, from the outside, be less interesting and unfamiliar to you beforehand. I knew that I would love Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, because she has already proven that she masters that role, but I never expected to fall so hard for Polka-Dot Man or Ratcatcher 2, and that is largely due to the winning or sympathetic performances delivered by Daniela Melchior and David Dastmalchian. I would say something similar for John Cena, who seems to be having a fantastic time in the role as Peacemaker, with which he gets to be very funny and very silly all the while being very dangerous. Cena is pretty perfect for the role. It should also be said that Stallone’s character and the tiny rat ‘Sebastian’ are scene-stealers.

I’ve already mentioned the heart, the humor, and the balance that has been successfully brought to this film, as well as the sometimes quite inventive title cards that appear from time to time. But that is only the tip of the iceberg, as there are so many excellent sequences that I want to watch over and over again. Like, the action scene where you have to look closely at the reflection of Peacemaker’s ever so shiny helmet to make out what is happening, or the fantastic and unforgettable way that Gunn communicates exactly what is going on inside the minds of Polka-Dot Man and Harley Quinn (sometimes with a lot of style).

In my mind, the 2016 Suicide Squad, which, again, reeked of studio interference, was the low-point of the interconnected comic book universe that Warner Bros. and DC Comics have been trying to get off the ground for quite some time, and that is exactly why it brings me great joy to be able say that James Gunn’s rip-roaring and riotous reboot/sequel, The Suicide Squad, is the best film of the DCEU thus far. I think it is clear and obvious for all to see that James Gunn was given free rein and creative freedom to do exactly what he wanted, and it turns out that he was the right man to trust the future of the once-stained franchise with. James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is a bloody good time at the movies.

8.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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