★★★★ - EMPIRE
A.R.G.U.S. director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is persisting with her suicide squad, a band of super-powered convicts chosen to fulfil secret government missions, or die trying. She assembles a ragtag bunch to find an evil scientist (Peter Capaldi) and prevent the release of a giant, alien starfish that could destroy the world.
The Suicide Squad is a fundamentally absurd idea. It has second tier (or below) DC supervillains, with frequently dumb powers, teaming up to do secret government missions. Even in a world of people flying around in their underpants, that is ridiculous. David Ayer’s 2016 film didn’t really respect that absurdity. It tried to bend the concept to fit the standard superhero mould, keen to find the goodness in its bad guys and with precious little sense of humour about the whole thing. James Gunn gets it. His take on The Suicide Squad is unashamedly silly, but crucially never stupid, and keeps the baddies at least morally murky. Most importantly, its primary aim is to be really, really fun.
Technically this is a sequel to Ayer's piece, but that film’s plot was such an incomprehensible mess that it’s quite simple for Gunn to largely ignore it. The addition of “The” to the beginning of the title seems a less than subtle instruction to consider this the real deal and the last one just a clumsy test run. That was merely a Suicide Squad.
After a swift explanation of the concept —Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the head of a US black-ops outfit, recruits incarcerated villains to do dangerous missions in exchange for time off their sentences — Gunn shows us that the Suicide Squad has significantly expanded. Still around are Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and Waller’s right-hand man, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, allowed to do more than scowl this time).
Joining them is a massive roster of new guys, including Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a hitman not dissimilar to Will Smith’s Deadshot in the first film; Peacemaker (John Cena), who has the same abilities as Bloodsport but with added pathological patriotism; Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), who controls rats; and Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), whose power is as mad as you’d imagine. There are others, but as the film makes clear, this is a suicide squad, and keeping everyone alive isn’t a goal. Oh, there’s also King Shark (voiced by a perfectly cast Sylvester Stallone). He is essentially what would happen if Homer Simpson and Jaws did a body swap. The mission this time is to head to a South American island where a coup has risked unleashing a dangerous weapon: a giant, telepathic, pink starfish called Starro. Yes, that’s correct.
What Gunn gets so right in all this is to treat the world seriously but not the events. If everything were played for laughs the film would collapse under its own wackiness. It needs a little bit of reality. Gunn gives it a rock-solid centre in Davis’ Amanda Waller, who treats her job as anything but a joke. Davis is phenomenal, playing Waller with a cold-hearted commitment to duty. It’s not a ‘comic-book-y’ performance. It is proper fire-and-fury, 100 per cent believable acting. You could lift her out and drop her in an Oscar-bait political thriller.
By contrast, there’s the squad. Gunn, who also wrote the script, has loads of fun with his mismatched team, enjoying smashing together characters who don’t play well with others. There’s huge comic mileage in Bloodsport and Peacemaker squabbling over who’s the best at killing. King Shark’s desire to blend in, despite being a great white with arms, makes him oddly loveable for a character who keeps biting people’s heads off. As last time, though, the highlight is Robbie’s Harley Quinn: part genius, part idiot. She’s given the best lines and the best action, like a bravura massacre in which Harley sees every bullet and blood-splash as bursts of candy-coloured flowers.
Gunn puts plenty of time into building the team’s bond. If he lets it loosen in the middle, by the time it comes to the final showdown, as Starro wobbles destructively over the island, he’s made his senseless band make sense as a team. He doesn’t make them goodies, though. He keeps a feeling they’re doing this less for the sake of the world than because they’re really enjoying it.
It would be enough for this just to be a very funny action-comedy, but Gunn also puts in some light-touch criticism of America’s role in international affairs. The gang kills first and asks questions later. Peacemaker, like a very right-wing Captain America, believes in “peace at any cost”. Gunn shows that you can have something to say while still delivering great gags. By embracing this deeply weird idea, he’s produced the most enjoyable DC movie in years.
When Gunn took on Guardians Of The Galaxy, he turned nonsense into gold for Marvel. By giving The Suicide Squad the same sense of mischief and an equally surreal streak, he’s done the same for DC.
- Olly Richards, EMPIRE MAGAZINE
The Suicide Squad is now playing at Light House Cinema!