A ruthless takedown of the Bush administration, a moving fable about friendship, and probably the most expensive exploitation picture ever made, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is like The Dirty Dozen populated by DC characters.
Diverging in both tone and texture from director David Ayer’s poorly-reviewed 2016 original, from which Gunn borrows only a handful of actors and the basic premise, the new Suicide Squad is an all-out sensory assault. Characters die willy-nilly, F-bombs are dropped with more regularity than the DC Extended Universe changing creative direction, and not a single moment is wasted on distracting cameos and franchise-building.
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The Suicide Squad is a self-contained exercise in maximalist storytelling, the likes of which we see only rarely. It might be the most deviant-minded mainstream superhero movie since Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.
He makes a blind-and-miss appearance here — I know what I just said about cameos, but this isn’t the sort of ‘guest appearance’ that’ll prompt a pointy-Leonardo DiCaprio-reaction out of you. It also helps that Gunn saves Waititi for one of the film’s most moving moments. There are several, each more surprising than the last, mostly because they tend to arrive seconds after someone has been brutally mauled to death.
Violence, funnily enough, has a way of disarming the audience. But subversion is a game that Gunn has mastered. He sets the story up as one thing, but in the course of two deftly-plotted hours, transforms it into something else entirely; much like the characters — at least the ones who make it till the end. And even a couple who don’t.
Like the first film, which, if you’ve been keeping up with this sort of news, was wrenched from Ayer’s hands ‘and turned into Deadpool’, Gunn’s Suicide Squad opens with the shady government agent Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis and her famous spittle) blackmailing villains into doing her bidding. She justifies a mission to infiltrate and neutralise a Nazi-era lab in South America as being in the greater interest of the United States, but she knows that she’s just abusing her power.
Almost as surprising as the film’s emotional intensity is Gunn’s decision to go political. Warner Bros did a neat (and perhaps understandable) job of keeping this under wraps. But The Suicide Squad is essentially a giant, starfish-shaped finger to America’s incursion-minded foreign policy. Although in the film, a weapon of mass destruction does indeed exist.
I don’t know what that says about the film’s perceived geo-political stance, but the film’s socio-politics are more clear-eyed. Consider the character Ratcatcher 2 (there’s an explanation for why she’s a human sequel, don’t worry), an immigrant who came to America looking for a better life, only to be treated unfairly by its justice system. In many ways, she’s to this film what El Diablo was to the original — a wildcard with a heart of gold.
And even though Margot Robbie gets top-billing and an entire 10-minute narrative nook all to herself, Idris Elba, as Bloodsport, is the lead, not only in terms of screen time, but also because his is the most gracefully pronounced character arc. Elba delivers just the right amount of pathos and pessimism, besides, of course, his natural ability to capture the audience’s attention by the scruff of the neck and make them go weak in the knees, simply by unleashing a grunt.
There is, however, a nagging suspicion that I have about whether or not Bloodsport is the result of a hasty rewrite following Will Smith’s refusal to return as the similarly-named Bloodshot from the first film.
Fortunately for Joel Kinnaman, though, he was extended an invitation this time around as well. His Colonel Rick Flag isn’t at all like the exposition-dumping robot that the character was written as in Ayer’s film. In this one, Flag even gets a moment to shine in the final set-piece, in a scene that also involves John Cena’s hilarious Peacemaker, who is designed, I imagine, as the sort of guy who’d assume a leadership role in the storming of the Capitol.
It’s an airtight script by Gunn, leaner and meaner than anything he’s done in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and more in line with his gonzo origins. It’s basically set across three days, but niftily moves back and forth in time; always a step ahead of the audience.
And as he’d indicated in his previous collaboration with cinematographer Henry Braham, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Gunn is also evolving as a visual storyteller. There are moments in this movie that are breathtakingly beautiful, once you wipe away the layer of blood from the lenses, of course. I was particularly impressed by a gunfight sequence featuring Harley Quinn, which makes up for a misstep of a scene that almost comes across as a contractual-obligation.
But it’s a minor complaint about a massively entertaining film. The Suicide Squad, as it is probably supposed to be, is a grand redemption tale, and this theme is summed up in a line of dialogue delivered by Bloodsport in the middle of the climactic action scene. “Harley, take the high ground,” he commands. She does. And so should we.
The Suicide Squad
Director – James Gunn
Cast – Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Daniela Melchior, David Dastmalchian, Peter Capaldi, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar