Suicide Squad earned $325 million at the domestic box office in 2016, yet no one really seemed to love it, aside from Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn, which almost everybody agreed was great. (I'm one of the few critics to give the movie a marginally positive review.) Perhaps detecting that a “do-over” was needed, Warner Bros. and DC did the only sensible thing – they got Guardians of the Galaxy writer/director James Gunn to come in and reboot the whole franchise. Having already proven his mettle at making comic book movies about teams of eccentric characters, he was a natural choice. The Suicide Squad distinguishes itself from its predecessor by being funnier and hard R-rated. The quirky tone he provides is its biggest selling point.
Viola Davis reprises her role as Amanda Waller, the head of a covert government operation that brings together dangerous criminals to go on dangerous missions. She assembles a team to go to the South American island of Corto Maltese, where an alien lifeforce is allegedly being harvested for potential use against the United States. Among the members she brings together are sharpshooters Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Peacemaker (John Cena), shark-man King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), pied piper of vermin Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), and Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a guy who – as his name implies – shoots polka dots at people. Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinneman) and Harley Quinn are back to help, too.
What happens in The Suicide Squad is not as important as how it happens. Gunn spends a lot of time focusing on the dynamics between team members. Showing these disparate people clashing, collaborating, and struggling to understand each other is at the film's heart. Humor plays a big part in that. For example, the group has to figure out a way to make King Shark not eat the other members of the team. In other situations, characters find themselves with opposing goals, despite being on the same mission. Each of them gets a big scene to help us see them as more than their quirky costumes or superpowers. That brings surprising depth to the portrait of teamwork.
An offbeat sensibility makes The Suicide Squad endlessly entertaining to watch. Dialogue is sharp and witty, often with a slightly naughty twist. (Says Peacemaker when they hit the shore of Corto Maltese: “If this whole beach was completely covered in dicks, and somebody said I had to eat every dick until the beach was clean for liberty, I would say 'No problemo!'”) Graphic violence is similarly presented in an unusual manner. Polka Dot Man, for example, blasts acidic multi-colored dots at enemies, melting away their bodies. Gunn has a way of being confidently over-the-top, so that the bizarreness feels natural, rather than presented simply for its own sake.
The energy in this picture is non-stop. A joke or a skillfully executed action scene is never far off, and everything culminates with a delightfully goofy finale where the Squad fights an enemy, the likes of which I don't think we've ever seen onscreen before, except maybe in a Spongebob Squarepants movie. Adding to that energy is Gunn's willingness to go for the unexpected. Some members of the team perish during the film, including a few that you'd think would be safe. Unlike many superhero stories, you can't sit back and assume your favorites will be around for the sequel. That keeps you constantly invested in what's happening.
Every cast member does exemplary work, but David Dastmalchian is the scene-stealer. As Polka Dot Man, he has the kind of breakout moment that Robbie had with the first Suicide Squad. The actor, who has been in everything from Ant-Man to Relaxer, possesses a natural hangdog appearance that suits the character well. This guy knows his superpower is lame, and it's a fact he must come to accept. Dastmalchian makes him sweet, demented, and hilarious at the same time.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” The Suicide Squad benefits from following that advice. It doesn't look or feel like other comic book movies. Instead of playing by the rules previously established via the MCU and DCEU, it breaks just about every single one of them. Seeing a big, commercial Hollywood movie say “screw it” and forge a unique path is gratifying. Only James Gunn could have brought us something this gloriously, appealingly twisted.
out of four
The Suicide Squad is rated R for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 12 minutes.