Cinema Dispatch: The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros

Directed by James Gunn

I was more positive than not about the first Suicide Squad movie, but there was absolutely a ceiling to how much I could appreciate it and frankly, I don’t think David Ayers getting his own AYERS CUT would end up improving things.  It was a lot of good ideas and solid performances wrapped up in a script that felt half-baked at best and an editing job that struggled mightily to wrangle it all into something coherent.  Fortunately, Warner Bros and the DCEU are in a much better position now as they’ve toned down the excessive budgets and improved the overall quality and tone of the films.  Best of all, they got James Gunn to direct it who’s made some of the best movies in the genre with his Guardians of the Galaxy films!  Sounds like the makings of a darn good movie to me, but are we looking at a perfect storm of awesomeness or are we just setting ourselves up for disappointment?  Let’s find out!!

Task Force X is a secret government program that is the brainchild of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and uses dangerous criminals to take on missions that are too dangerous for anyone else.  When there’s a regime change in a South American country to a government that is not so US friendly, Waller needs a crack team of weirdos to go in there and destroy a secret project known only as Starfish that is hidden below a research facility in the center of the country’s capital, and while some of them like Bloodsport Peacemaker, and arguably even Harley Quinn (Idris Elba, John Cena, and Margot Robbie), some of the others just seem to be there to either be cannon fodder or to just get them out of the prison system’s hair.  I mean seriously what are you supposed to do with a guy like King Shark (Sylvester Stallone) and some dude named THE POLKA-DOT MAN (Davis Dastmalchian)?  There are several others assigned to this mission such as Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) and the always dependable Rick Flag as the leader (Joel Kinnaman), but it doesn’t take long for things to go sideways and for the team to have to more or less wing it as they try to find a way into the city undetected so they can kidnap the country’s super-scientist known as The Thinker (Peter Capaldi) to get them inside the research base and just figure it out from there.  Can this rag-tag group of super-losers save America from whatever this Project Starfish is and secure their freedom in the process?  What isn’t Amanda Waller telling them about the mission and just how much is at stake if they end up failing?  I mean whatever happens it can’t be as bad as having one of your own team members take over a city and turn everyone into her zombie servants.  Sure it’s a low bar to clear, but you’ve got to start somewhere!

“Honestly, I think we can write this off as a learning experience.”     “Hungry.”     “See?  The shark guy gets it!”

I won’t go so far as to say this is the PERFECT Suicide Squad movie as there were certainly a few things that bugged me throughout, but Gunn’s wildly excessive attitudes and goofy tendencies turn out to be a much better fit than what Ayers seemed to be going for in the last one.  The muted colors and heavy stakes of the last one just felt like it was trying too hard to be cool and edgy while this one is trying its darnedest to look as carefree as possible which manages to hone in much more strongly on the core ideas!  That and it’s simply much more fun to watch!  Some will bemoan the DCEU continuing to go in a more comedic direction with brighter colors, a lighter tone, and much more quip-filled dialogue, but even in the candy-coated excess of it all you will find some genuinely distressing, terrifying, and even heartbreaking moments which is what the earlier DCEU films just couldn’t grasp; a darker tone and blunt symbolism don’t make a movie more mature or intellectually stimulating.  All the slow motion cinematography, weighty exposition, and Jesus metaphors in the world can only get you so far if you’ve got nothing else going on underneath the hood, and say what you will about James Gunn but he doesn’t make movies without a few ideas to work through and some genuinely interesting characters to explore… or perhaps explode?

“WHO WANTS A PIECE OF THIS CHARACTER ARC!?”

Where to even start with how this movie improves upon the first one!?  It’d probably be faster just to list the few places it DOESN’T work better, but I like to save my criticisms for later in the review, so let’s try and give this movie its due!  The two key things to this movie succeeding seem to be James Gunn’s direction and Warner Bros’ shifting attitude towards the DCEU.  As I said, things over there have started shifting away from Snyder’s original vision and have since let each film stand more on its own which is the kind of freedom you want for a guy like Gunn who’s got a million different ideas for each scene in the movie; none of which involve expanding the brand or teasing other movies.  The fact that it’s in the DCEU is almost incidental if you ask me as the premise is more in line with an Expendables movie than anything else, but through Gunn’s particular lens it stands on its own as a fun yet surprisingly dark romp through the seedier side of this cinematic universe.  It’s also just better constructed as the film doesn’t feel cobbled together from a dozen different cuts or hundreds of hours of random footage which was a big issue with the last one as there’s a coherent story from beginning to end with no real loose ends or awkwardly sandwiched together plotlines to be found.  This coherence also extends to the action scenes which are really not THAT dissimilar from what he was doing in Guardians except with a grungier and bloodier tone to it all that works for the movie and certainly gives it an edge as far as every other movie in the DCEU. 

“Have you ever been through anything like that before?”     “Yes.  Next to a guy wearing jorts?  No.”     “These are comfortable, flexible, and versatile.  They’re probably the reason we’re all still alive right now!”

What really puts this one over the top and frankly where Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies are influencing it the most (even more so than the action) are the characters as this is yet another team of “losers” who are really just masking deep insecurities, trauma, and emotional baggage.  From Ratcatcher 2 and Polka-Dot Man’s complicated relationships to their families to Harley’ Quinn’s complicated relationship with… well, EVERYONE, there’s room in this movie for all of the characters to have a moment of self-reflection and even a bit of growth here and there; even King Shark who is constantly underestimated and treated more like a weapon than a living thing has his moments to shine, and it makes the BADASS sizzle moments all the more meaningful when they’re done by characters you genuinely get to know and feel attached to in some way.  At worst you can argue that some of the characters feel a bit too much like ones from the previous movie, though it’s mostly done better here.  Idris Elba probably has the hardest job here considering he’s SO much like Will Smith’s character in the last one and frankly I don’t think he quite manages to make out from under that shadow, but he manages to be the glue that holds this entire thing together; even more so than Joel Kinnaman who has a much smaller role here than I was expecting but still manages to bring something new to the table and feels more fleshed out as a character.  The real star for me though is Peacemaker; and not just because John Cena looks AMAZING in his tighty whities!  The whole movie he plays this single-minded attack dog of freedom that uses his unwavering convictions to justify his actions, but as the movie goes along and things are revealed, you can see that the implacable façade is simply a giant wall between him and his pain as the movie forces him into situations where his ideals clash with whatever is left of his humanity; all of which is portrayed amazingly well by John Cena!  Sure the dude played a villain in that Fast and Furious movie, but this is the role that I think REALLY shows the kind of chops he has to play bad guys, and frankly it’s something that I think his other wrestling buddy Dwayne Johnson could take note of.  Then again, I’m the ONE GUY who thinks The Rock’s character arc in Doom was nuanced and tragic, so maybe I’m just an easy mark for this kind of villain, but for what it’s worth Cena puts a lot into his performance here and manages to surprise you every now and again!

“I tell ya, the day I saw that Team America World Police Movie… my whole life changed.  I was an empty vessel going through life and then… I was complete.”     “Dibs on not teaming with that guy.”

The only major flaw with the movie that holds it back, which oddly enough was ALSO an issue with the first one, is that there’s a sense of aimlessness to the story.  Despite having so many strengths over the last film, it still feels the need to dawdle at several points throughout the runtime on seemingly unimportant tangents or just simply to watch them get from one place to another.  This is also not helped by the fact that Amanda Waller and the rest of the Task Force X team are not in the movie nearly enough as they spend most of the middle section of the movie “out of radio contact” just to justify us not cutting back to them periodically and I’m still not sure why because if anyone can get a group of half-assed jerks is silly costumes to put some pep in their step, it’s Amanda freaking Waller!  It’s a shame because Waller really is the crux to what makes Task Force X tick; namely that her fatal flaw is her constantly overestimating the control she has over every situation and her crew dealing with that sense of expendability in the face of an uncaring system; having to fight against it either to do the right thing in the end or to simply save themselves from being another line item on some government spreadsheet, and while that does become part of the story it feels all concentrated at the beginning and end instead of layered throughout the whole movie.  The whole middle part of this film lacks urgency as there’s not much of a ticking clocking that the crew is fighting against and they don’t seem to be in much of a hurry to get anywhere so anytime the action slows down a bit the whole thing comes to a crawl.  And yeah, I’m just gonna say it; I didn’t like the opening.  I understand what the point of it was and frankly, it does SUCH a better job in ten minutes than the ENTIRE previous movie did in its whole running time of getting to the heart of what a monstrous idea Task Force X is in the first place, but it still feels like a lot of potential was wasted and is at least a LITTLE bit of a bait and switch.  Nothing I’d cry home about or start demanding that a studio change to please me (okay, maybe for ONE thing that happens to ONE character), but it was an oddly deflating sequence right at the beginning that honestly took a lot of the wind out of the movie’s sails for me.  I already liked this movie a whole lot, but I’m just imagining how much more I’d like the movie if they handled that differently.

“Why do we keep losing the feed!?”     “It’s all coming through on the HBO Max app.”     “DARN YOU, YOU POORLY OPTIMIZED STREAMING SERVICE!!”

The few flaws that can be found in this movie are all the more noticeable because of how well it handles everything else.  Perhaps Gunn is done with the franchise after doing this one film, but if he comes back I do hope that he streamlines things a little bit and finds a bit more use of all the tools he has in the box.  Despite my minor reservations and the very specific issues I have with the opening scene, this gets an easy recommendation from me.  It took a bit of time, but it feels like we’re finally starting to get the great movies we were denied last year and I can only hope that Warner Bros continues to put its faith in great oddball filmmakers like Gunn to keep the DCEU relevant.  I mean if they wanted to get a guy like Robert Eggers or Panos Cosmatos to make the next one, I certainly wouldn’t object!

4 out of 5

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