*1/2 out of ****
(for strong violence and gore, strong language throughout, some sexual references, drug use, and brief graphic nudity)
Released: August 6, 2021 in theaters and on HBO Max
Runtime: 132 minutes
Directed by: James Gunn
Starring: Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, John Cena, Daniela Melchior, David Dastmalchian, Peter Capaldi, Michael Rooker, Jai Courtney, Pete Davidson, Nathan Fillion, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone
In theaters and available to stream on HBO Max
The Suicide Squad is grindhouse garbage on a $185 million budget.
Despite fronting with repulsive bravado, James Gunn’s expensive, hard-R reboot of David Ayer‘s failed 2016 effort is just another Trojan horse for corporate IP calculations. It impishly revels in its disgusting excesses but never earns them, not the least because it doesn’t actually own the sincere, corrosive nastiness of its anarchic bluster.
Underneath its profane, wanton excess, The Suicide Squad is formulaic and conventional — even risk averse. For all its no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, they’re-all-expendable mayhem, it goes soft exactly when it should harden its resolve, pulling its punches at the very moments it should be throwing them.
Based on DC’s dirty dozen brand, The Suicide Squad is a motely team of imprisoned super-villains whose sentences will be revoked if they fulfill a deadly mission for Uncle Sam.
Bringing back some characters from the previous movie while swapping others out for new ones, this Squad isn’t so much a reboot as a do-over, attempting to course-correct the poorly-reviewed original that, for all its baggage, opened to a hefty $133 million in North America and hauled in $746 million worldwide.
But this do-over is overdone.
Splicing, dicing, and dismembering bodies in an onslaught of carnage, The Suicide Squad bears the bizarre, bloody signature of Gunn’s roots in Troma, the monstrous B-movie horror brand. It’s all shock for shock-value, gratuitous to the point of comic absurdity. But when being gross is the only punchline – devoid of any clever setup, context, or perspective – it’s not funny, it’s just juvenile. And cheap.
The action set-pieces, to their credit, are choreographed with some inventive design, but the story is generic and its characters thin, much of it feeling like warmed-over ideas from Gunn’s discarded Guardians of the Galaxy scrap pile (ex: Sylvester Stallone’s mono-syllabic grunting shark is merely this movie’s Groot, and Weasel a more frazzled Rocket Raccoon).
The dialogue is flat; the jokes crass, not clever. Attempts at sentiment are strained, too; banal, even trite. Simply put, The Suicide Squad is neither funny nor compelling and, over its two-plus hours, becomes increasingly boring.
In a desperate Hail Mary for substance, Gunn’s meat-grinding gauntlet feigns political commentary in the second hour, but it’s merely a rote regurgitation of boilerplate critical theory, pegging the U.S. government as corrupt and ruthless, no better than the authoritarian regimes it claims to oppose. What a shocker. A thought-provoking expose, it ain’t.
If there’s anything interesting or original here, it all comes from the source, not in anything that Gunn does with it. In his hands, these arch villains turned antiheroes merely have a faux edge. Collectively, they’re a melting pot of scarred Childhood psyches and Daddy Issue clichés.
In fact, each one is endeared with so much heart that when innocent people fall victim to their violence, they feel regret for their flippant disregard, not ambivalence. Real badasses would callously shrug off their collateral damage but, for a budding franchise, sociopathy would be too much of a risk. Can’t have that. So instead, The Suicide Squad navigates its vulgar decadence in ways that ultimately saves its own skin.
Instead of daring us to root for these (allegedly) heinous malcontents, Gunn draws ethical boundaries that too easily keep us cheering for them, careful to make sure we sympathize at every turn. Even when one squad member betrays another, Gunn safely pities both parties. His rogues aren’t really bad, after all; they’re just traumatized outcasts with hearts of gold.
The only true villain is Waller (Viola Davis), the merciless military bureaucrat who’d just as soon execute her squad as exploit them. If Gunn actually had the courage of this material’s ostensible amoral convictions, Waller would be a complicated protagonist, not the lone antagonist.
Furthermore, these characters would have more integrity (and be more compelling) if at least a few in the squad used this mission as an unapologetic, bloodthirsty license to kill rather than a road to redemption. Instead, every person on the squad wrestles with a conflicted conscience or is comically oblivious to the consequences of their violence. Either way you slice it, they all mean well—even when compromised.
Ironically, for a movie that wallows in blood and gore, it has absolutely no guts.
The nutshell personification of that is Margot Robbie’s obnoxious Harley Quinn, a caricatured hot mess whose broad, brash Brooklyn persona is little more than inauthentic performance art, a “damaged goods” psyche that lacks actual complexity or nuance and simply serves to manipulate our current #MeToo indignations.
The only improvement here over Ayer’s muddled mess is that Gunn is a more competent, creative filmmaker, but to no worthy end. The result is infantile in its grotesquery, and in the laziest, most obvious ways. Granted, Ayer’s movie is more of a disaster, but once you get past the studio-mandated rewrites and reshoots that were heaped upon him (and tried to “Deadpool” Ayer’s gritty action-drama after-the-fact) you at least see a filmmaker trying to take chances. Gunn’s raucous crucible may be weirder and stranger, but it’s also less ambitious.
Quentin Tarantino has elevated B-Movie schlock to legitimate cinema. James Gunn has simply commodified it for the masses. The pop-filmmaker may fancy himself the studio equivalent of these antihero mercenaries (i.e. a bad boy doing good with his perverse powers) but, honestly, Gunn is closer to Waller, an empowered cipher with enough talent and chutzpah to deceive a crew into helping him achieve the nihilistic bottom line of his soulless corporate masters.
With The Suicide Squad (like Guardians of the Galaxy before it), Gunn isn’t subverting the system; he is the system.