There have been two sides to filmmaker James Gunn and his mainstream career: there is Gunn the director, who works with oddball ensembles of outcasts trying to resolve their trauma through family surrogate (both Guardians of the Galaxy entries being the obvious examples); then there is the writer-producer Gunn who rides the wave of blood and gore to the heart of the audience (The Belko Experiment, Slither, and Dawn of the Dead). His latest work The Suicide Squad – not to be confused with 2016’s Suicide Squad – is a blend of both worlds. The film is at its best when it embraces this fusion instead of stretching too far out of its element with its performative investigation of American imperialism.
The rules of the game are the same as last time. Incarcerated supervillains are volun-told by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to partake in seemingly impossible missions in exchange for 10 years removed from their prison sentences. The mission? Destroy any and all data relating to a Project Starfish on the South American island of Corto Maltese after a coup leads to the establishment of an anti-American government. There are two teams on the island, unbeknownst to the players and the audience. Colonel Rick Flag and Harley Quinn (Joel Kinnaman and Margot Robbie) are the only survivors of the first team, and the progression of the film volleys back and forth between the main objective and uniting the two characters with the second team, led by Bloodsport (Idris Elba).
Unlike its predecessor, the cast buzzes with chemistry. It may not lean as heavily into the surrogate family model that’s been part of Gunn’s filmography, but there are compelling dynamics between all of the actors. Elba’s Bloodsport shines brightest when he shares the screen with Ratcatcher 2 and Peacemaker (Daniela Melchior and John Cena). Melchior’s kindness and the friendship between Flag and Quinn is almost enough to counteract the callousness of the film’s violence, but it’s difficult for this writer to forget the ease it took to mass murder a coalition of freedom fighters on the island fighting the new regime. The point was already made in the film’s first 10 minutes it was going to be a bloody ride. Was it necessary to display American assets, particularly someone named Peacemaker, rampage through a camp of defenseless non-white people? Never mind the fun the movie seemed to be having with it.
Of course, that isn’t to say things like that don’t happen. There are countless examples of American-sponsored genocide and intervention. It feels like Gunn wants to be genuine with his critique of America’s influence abroad, but the film disrespects the very people it aims to save. Very American if one thinks about it. The people of Corto Maltese are props. Even the leader of the coalition, Sol Soria (Alice Braga), is more-or-less unbothered upon discovering her entire camp being murdered. This is easier for her to do at the behest of Flag, who insists the mission is the same and they’re on the same side. There’s a huge Spongebob “we saved the city” vibe in the end when, literally seconds after the climactic battle, amongst the rubble of her home, Soria conducts an interview saying the country will have free democratic elections. The whole angle doesn’t feel completely thought out, thus it doesn’t feel genuine.
Bad politics aside, the film’s writing and editing leave one wanting less. Robbie is a natural as Quinn, but if she were to be removed from the story, it’s mostly the same film. We love to see the acrobatic Quinn break dudes necks with her thighs or to see her explode in a flowery storm of bullets and blood, yet her role is distant from the others and disconnected from the overall narrative. The film’s editing also can’t seem to get out of its own way, cutting away just before certain line deliveries that went in perfect harmony with its corresponding image. It does it again as the final battle reaches a head when the film opts for a brief flashback. These editing decisions were enough to take this viewer out of the moment.
The film does deserve points for its creature design. A giant, all-consuming starfish from space? It’s more memorable than most generic final boss battles in this genre. Gunn’s true love for the misunderstood can be seen through Starro the Conqueror, who was captured by astronauts and experimented on ever since. Seemingly capable of infinite growth, to the point where it could go full face-hugger on the entire Earth, it does come across a little odd that it would be satisfied with simply taking the island of Corto Maltese. Regardless, the decision to possess the citizens of the island and use them as a mouthpiece for Starro gives the creature a hint of a personality, capped off with its final line, reminiscing its time floating through space while in the throes of death.
Thus concludes this mixed review for this mixed movie. While Gunn’s work shouldn’t be labeled as subversive, it does usually have its own voice that balances between brutishness and empathy. Suicide Squad veers more into the former than the latter. It certainly isn’t boring and most people will vibe with the hectic energy. Some jokes land better than others. For the love of God, COVID or no COVID, cover your mouth when you cough.