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The Suicide Squad (2021) Film Review

The Suicide Squad is the most fun you’ll have at the movies all summer, as James Gunn serves up a gloriously gory and gut-busting superhero spectacle.

When the first Suicide Squad was released just five years ago, expectations couldn’t have possibly been higher. Watching a group of super powered individuals join forces and fight alongside each other for the greater good was nothing new (see The Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, etc.), but Suicide Squad flipped the script, making our protagonists far less “pure” than usual. Centering the story around supervillains was certainly an inspired choice conceptually that worked wonders at igniting interest in the superhero film fanbase and setting this feature apart from similar titles thanks to the “edge” present in the picture, which was commonly lacking in many of these movies. And, by including some of the biggest names in Hollywood today (Will Smith, Margot Robbie) and some of the most iconic comic-book characters of all-time (The Joker, Harley Quinn), it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Suicide Squad would be a smash hit. Well, at least on paper.

Sadly, David Ayer’s (Fury, Bright) DCEU debut was significantly less than stellar. While the cast was largely commendable, the rest of the film was woefully foul, marred by a scattershot script, erratic editing, and Ayer’s gross male gaze (particularly when directed at Robbie’s Harley). Sure, it was a box office success, but Warner Bros. recognized the writing on the wall with the ruinous reception from fans and critics; even though the property showed promise, a direct sequel would simply not be sustainable.

And that’s where Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn came in. Following his (brief) departure from Disney, the prolific director was without a studio to call home or a story to impart his creative sensibilities onto, and Warner Bros., correctly recognizing the similarities between Guardians and Suicide Squad, quickly snatched him up in what can only be called one of the greatest strokes of genius in cinema history. Without a doubt, Gunn fits this world like a glove, and with The Suicide Squad, he’s not only delivered one of the best films in the DC Comics cinematic universe, but also one of the most audaciously original additions to the superhero film subgenre period.

As with almost all James Gunn movies, the story here is simple. Once again, Viola Davis’s (The Help, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) ball-busting Amanda Waller calls on a select group of imprisoned convicts at the Belle Reve penitentiary to be sent as members of the uber-classified Task Force X (commonly referred to as the “Suicide Squad”) to prevent a potentially world-ending catastrophe, with the promise of earning 10 years off of their jail sentence, should they complete the mission successfully. This time around, the job involves traveling to the South American island of Corto Maltese to destroy “Jotunheim,” a Nazi-era prison and laboratory that held political prisoners and conducted inhuman experiments on innocent individuals for years. Located within “Jotunheim” is the secret to this suffering – an interdimensional alien being who could bring about the end of existence as we know it.

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MARGOT ROBBIE as Harley Quinn in Warner Bros. Pictures’ superhero action adventure “THE SUICIDE SQUAD,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/™ & © DC Comics)

Waller’s roster may have changed slightly for this task, but this team is certainly no less capable of handling these horrors, consisting of the belligerent Bloodsport (Idris Elba, of Thor and Pacific Rim), the hammy Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, of I, Tonya and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), the persnickety Peacemaker (John Cena, of Bumbleebee and F9), the resilient Ratcatcher 2 (delightful newcomer Daniela Melchior), the peculiar Polka-Dot Man (David Dasmalchian, of The Dark Knight and Ant-Man), and the kind-hearted but killer King Shark (Sylvester Stallone, of Rocky and Rambo), all led by the fearless Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, of RoboCop and Altered Carbon). Together, this motley crew of misfits have to set aside their stark differences and learn to trust one another – despite the darkness present in their past – in order to make the mission a success and make it out alive.

Let’s just get this out of the way at the start – there’s simply no one who writes superheroes better today than James Gunn, and it’s not even close. Gunn’s singularly irreverent spirit and signature blend of heart and humor is unmatched by any other auteur in the superhero space at the moment, and the love that he has for all his leads – no matter how seemingly “hard” to embrace on the surface – is nothing short of stunning. In every single one of Gunn’s films, no character is spared from his compassion, and he effectively probes every personality, not only nailing their individual idiosyncrasies but also daring to dig deeper and explore their inner ills, demonstrating that, though they may possess otherworldly powers, these people are no different than us.

As expected, The Suicide Squad contains the crucial “James Gunn” jokes that set him apart from his contemporaries and make him such a hit with the fans – conveying the very best comedy in any DC film ever – but it’s this sincerity that he brings to The Suicide Squad that make it stand out most, paralleling the genuineness he provided the Guardians of the Galaxy and injecting the DCEU with previously unforeseen depth.

In just 132 minutes, Gunn beautifully balances compelling character arcs for every member of his ensemble, taking previously “unknown” names and suffusing them with stirring soulfulness, which contrasts with their reputations as “ruffians” and challenges our ideas of who these supposedly “sinful” individuals are. Rest assured, Gunn doesn’t rob these evildoers of their “edginess,” as he instead simply challenges us to see them from fresh perspectives, adding layers to these so-called “antagonists” that blur the line between “good” and “bad.”

This sophisticated storytelling makes the first Suicide Squad look even worse in retrospect, which treated its protagonists as toys who were merely there to shoot things, look pretty, and sell some sarcastic quips every now and then. There was just no substance to that plot at any point, whereas Gunn goes out of his way to make you actually care for the criminals caught in this chaos, and such passion pays off profusely.

Equally impressive is how Gunn manages to safeguard the “saltier” aspects of his style while never sacrificing this sentimentality, or vice versa. We may have gotten a taste of Gunn’s coarseness in some of Guardians’ crasser jokes, but with The Suicide Squad, the reins are taken off completely, and Gunn wastes no time exposing us to the full extent of his gloriously gory (and gut-busting) intentions for this formerly flagging franchise. The cold open sets the story up in devilishly deranged fashion, with Gunn establishing a striking sense of suspense thanks to the astronomical loss of life in this setpiece, illustrating that no character is safe whatsoever. That mood is sustained throughout the rest of the movie, clouding the entire adventure in anxiety, as we start to wonder if even fan favorites like Robbie’s Harley are safe from Gunn’s slayings.

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(L-r) DANIELA MELCHIOR as Ratcatcher 2 and IDRIS ELBA as Bloodsport in Warner Bros. Pictures’ superhero action adventure “THE SUICIDE SQUAD,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/™ & © DC Comics)

And when those slaughters are shown onscreen – either of the Squad members themselves or their ferocious foes – Gunn makes this annihilation an artform of its own, returning to his Troma roots and harkening back to his “harsher” cinematic sensibilities found in films like Slither and Super. While these scenes are shot in the same merry manner Gunn brings to all his movies, he doesn’t skimp on the macabre either, showcasing imagery others wouldn’t dare offer up in a superhero film. It’s brutal and beastly but also bold and beguiling, demonstrating the rich rewards one can reap when they don’t resort to anonymous filmmaking in the blockbuster space and instead take brash bets. There’s something so special about watching a superhero movie and actually being surprised by both the story beats and the director’s style, especially after so many have come and gone and looked like identical clones of one another. The Suicide Squad rebukes this stale superhero routine in favor of something fresher and far more fun.

Assisting Gunn in bringing his slick and splatter-esque spectacle to life is his enormously engrossing ensemble, where each and every actor is given equal opportunity to fully flesh their theatrical personas out. As usual, Robbie’s hilarious Harley steals the show – being afforded the film’s most skillfully staged action scene as well – but Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2 isn’t far behind, serving as the true soul of the team (with a particularly heart-wrenching history) and proving essential to their success in the third act skirmish. Elba is entertaining as ever as the de facto “leader” of this troop, able to be either serious or sardonic depending on what the scene demands, and he once again asserts himself as one of Hollywood’s most reliable – and underrecognized – leading men.

Meanwhile, Cena continues to make quite a career for himself as an actor as the pugnacious Peacemaker, constantly (and comedically) clashing with Elba’s Bloodsport, while Dasmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man is a goddamn delight, giving dimension to a character that could’ve purely been a punchline. And, though he’s a fish of few words, Stallone’s King Shark is also a sidesplitting standout.

When you watch James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, the depiction of the team in its disastrous 2016 predecessor will be but a distant memory, as Gunn washes away that atrocity with his own imaginative, inappropriate, and surprisingly inspirational interpretation of this group of goons who grow past their prior plights and learn to do good by finding something bigger than themselves to fight for – their friends. Equal parts poignant and profane, The Suicide Squad is a superhero movie like none other, and its particular achievements aren’t bound to be replicated any time soon, as few artists possess the creative prowess of James Gunn. Simply put, this crude yet compassionate concoction is one-of-a-kind.

Get it on Apple TV

James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is now available to watch on digital and on demand.

The Suicide Squad: Trailer (Warner Bros. Pictures)
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