Friday, August 6, 2021


James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is better than David Ayer’s 2016 adaptation of DC’s Dirty Dozen riff to which the new movie is a combo sequel, retread, and reboot. But what a low bar to set. Ayer’s version was severely compromised by studio meddling, as he’s more than willing to tell anyone who’ll listen. But even so, though his movie looked and moved like it barely got out of the editing room — choppy, ungainly, atonal, nonsensical — and had an off-putting ooze of nastiness in characterization and tone, it matched his filmmaking personality. Ayer, of End of Watch and Fury, is darkly preoccupied with antihero ugliness, cops and gangs, men of violence, inscrutable poisoned macho codes, and leering pleasure in bloodletting. One felt that, among the film’s many issues, his go-around in the comic book movie world was an oozing R barely, uncomfortably, trimmed back to a chaotic blockbuster PG-13. Somehow Gunn got to go all the way in this new version, clearly positioned as a corrective, a make-good acknowledgement the studio shouldn’t have held back last time. It just took a string of pleasantly eccentric and uneven DC movies — Aquaman, Shazam, Snyder’s Justice League — to get Warner Brothers to let creatives swing away, cinematic universe be damned. Why out do Marvel with connectivity when they could differentiate by going wilder and woolier?

So Gunn, hopping over from the rival house style after a stint with the Guardians of the Galaxy, is happy to meld the joshing Marvel sentimentality with his brand of affection for assembling a band of misfit toys and a bracing exploitation cynicism from his Troma days where gooey body horror and geysers of blood and guts are meant to give the audience a sick kick. The idea of assembling a team of C-list supervillains for a suicide mission remains an irresistible one, and this film is eager to turn it into a playground for character actors and effects artists. And the abandon of the storytelling makes any character fair game to receive a headshot as a punchline. It carries over leaders Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), as well as wild card Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and surrounds them with a new cast of expendables. Idris Elba makes the best impression as a reluctant leader, while the likes of John Cena, David Dastmalchian, and Daniela Melchior play a motley crew of combination comic relief and oddball energy. Each with their own powers — marksmanship, deadly polka dots, rats, and did I mention the talking shark (Sylvester Stallone)? — they’re dropped onto a fictional South American island where they trudge through the jungle and slip into a dictator’s compound with the mission of getting rid of a shady science experiment. The movie at least has the sense to set that simple objective and head straight there, while finding a few moderately engaging twists along the way. It’s enjoyable, if all a bit too much.

The project matches Gunn’s filmmaking personality, a quipping, vulgar, tightly scripted and shaggily developed mean-streak with a mix-tape heart of gold. He can’t help himself. His films play like the work of the most talented dirty-minded dork from your junior high all grown up. Here it comes out as prankish and coarse and high on its own self-amused supply. There’s some token nods towards serious ideas, like a recognition of compromised US foreign policy and a fig leaf of social commentary about prisons and militarism. (An all-American anti-hero named Peacekeeper says he loves peace so much he’s willing to kill every man, woman, and child who gets in its way. Ha.) But the movie is far more interested in sending its colorful characters into outrageously gory action and concussive, episodic spectacles. (Each new sequence is even separated with a new splashy title, like the next issue of a comic.) In practice, each little bit is a fine spin of studio filmmaking, loud and entertaining, bright and legible, smirking and savage, clever for clever’s sake. But as a total experience is gets awfully tedious and repetitive. I felt hollowed out by the end. Part of that draining sense comes from the slippery sliding scale between deaths played for laughs and deaths played for poignancy which feels all out of whack, from a massacre of freedom fighters shrugged off to one of our more sympathetic bad guys given a backstory of a hated mother that turns into a mean sight gag. It’d be more entertaining if it was less exhausting. And yet I found myself thinking despite myself that maybe the third time would be the charm?

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