The Suicide Squad (2021)
They’re dying to save the world.
After a military coup destabilizes the Caribbean nation of Corto Maltese, the U.S. government sends in Task Force X, aka The Suicide Squad, to sort things out. Under the command of the steely Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), with field leadership courtesy of Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the squad are comprised of various mostly B-and-C-list DC villains pulling duty as deniable assets for Uncle Sugar in exchange for reduced sentences. Naturally, they’re used for the most dangerous missions, and unlike the previous film by David Ayer, that actually means something here — the body count is huuuuuuuuuge.
Which leaves me, your humble pop culture mine canary, in something of a conundrum — let’s call it “spoiler by omission.” The Suicide Squad has an impressively large — and just plain impressive — cast, and even listing them and explaining the characters they play would eat up a lot of my word count. If I don’t talk about a character, does that mean they don’t survive? Well, yes, probably — a smart reader would figure that out pretty quickly, and you guys seem pretty sharp. So, even though I promise not to reveal more than is strictly necessary, if you’re particularly spoiler-sensitive, a) grow up, and b) this film rocks hard. It lets writer-director James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), indulge his wildest impulses in a way Marvel would simply never allow and still manages to be very funny and emotionally satisfying, even if the focus is very much on gleeful splatter and shock, with any emotional catharsis feeling more like a nice added bonus rather than a core value.
Anyhoo, spoilers off the starboard bow.
At heart, this is a guys-on-a-mission film, and that’s as it should be. Comics-wise, Suicide Squad (or The Suicide Squad if you prefer, but who cares) has always functioned best when it’s cleaved to its Dirty-Dozen-in-the-DC-Universe high concept and floundered when its characters have become too popular to be really at risk (*cough*Harley*cough*). Gunn’s film takes this to heart, giving us a plethora of fuck-ups and also-rans who are often patently ridiculous, and then making us care for these losers, and then absolutely obliterating them in a variety of bloody and spectacular ways. Emblematic of this is David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man, who gets a lot of the pathos in this one, while Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) is very much, as Gunn has said in the press, the heart of the team — and the film.
Elsewhere we get an amusing macho rivalry between mercenary Bloodsport (Idris Elba, putting Will Smith in the shade) and slightly douchier mercenary Peacemaker (John Cena), which hits its comedic peak with a murder competition in a jungle guerrilla camp, and the delightful presence of anthropomorphic Great White King Shark (voice by Sylvester Stallone, bod by Steve Agee and a lot of CGI), who’s a lovely doofus when he’s not eating people alive, and easily the comedy MVP in a film stacked with funny people.
And then, of course, Starro, the mind-controlling alien conqueror shaped like a giant starfish, shows up, and that’s a total delight in and of itself. The singular frisson of Suicide Squad has always been the contrasting and complementary flavors of nasty black ops in a four-color superhero world, and while Gunn leans into the silliness more than the drama, he gets the mix pretty right. The U.S.’s interest in Corto Maltese (a country first mentioned in Frank Miller’s ridiculously influential The Dark Knight Returns if memory serves) is less than charitable, and the ruthlessness with which Waller, in particular, approaches the mission, and her attitude to her expendable assets, is rather chilling when you reflect on it. In the moment, however, you’re probably too busy enjoying watching Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) goofing around and/or killing bad guys to take immediate note of the subtext. (sidebar: Harley gets a wild, meaningful solo sum-mission that culminates in a truly impressive action sequence that Robbie clearly relished).
Look, at the end of the day, The Suicide Squad is a hyper-violent, very funny, straightforward actioner with a great cast, a sharp script, and a twisted eye for the gory and the grotesque. It marries James Gunn’s Troma-honed sensibilities with the big-budget chops he honed on the Guardians of the Galaxy flicks almost perfectly. I don’t know if I’d call it a worthy continuation of the last film as it pretty much ignores almost everything it can about that mess, particularly the po-faced tone, which is absolutely for the best. If DC/Warner wants to go forward with this property, this is a perfect blueprint for how to do it. If this turns out to be a one-and-done, well, we should be happy to have it. After all, what’s the point of a Suicide Squad that lives forever anyway?
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson