One little article separates James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad” from David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad.” But, oh, what a difference a word makes.
Just five years after the trainwreck that prompted Warner Bros. to retool its DC Comics universe, James Gunn’s nearly wholesale re-do exists in an entirely different movie galaxy. “The Suicide Squad” may go down as one of the greatest, and quickest, do-overs in blockbusterdom.
Like Gunn’s two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, “The Suicide Squad” is a chaotic, freewheeling inversion of much of what’s expected in a comic book movie. Here, heroes die (a lot of them). Most aren’t really heroes, either. Some aren’t even human. But they’ve been sprung from prison for a kamikaze mission on behalf of the U.S. government. In this motliest of crews, no one has anything like a sleek shield or a clean caped suit.
Early on in “The Suicide Squad” we get a sense that the mission is dubious. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) summons a bunch of prisoners for Task Force X program. Exactly who are to be our main characters and who’s head is about to sliced like a melon takes some sorting out. But in a clown-car of a superhero movie the most central protagonist is Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, a mercenary only coaxed into joining the team when Waller threatens prison time or worse for his teenage daughter (Storm Reid, very good).
With him are Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior, a standout), a laconic, warm-hearted Millennial with a very polite pet rat named Sebastian on her shoulder. The skills of Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) are initially hard to decipher, but the shy, stunted Abner proves surprisingly capable, even if he, himself, sheepishly apologizes for having such a “flamboyant” power.
There is also John Cena’s Peacemaker, easily the most jingoist of the bunch, a kind of Captain America knockoff. Just what each squad member feels about their home country and its role in international backwaters is prominently in play in “The Suicide Squad.”
Also in the mix is Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. It’s her third film in that character but the best yet in capturing Quinn’s chipper mania. A brief romantic interest tells her he adores her for symbolizing anti-American fervor. Within minutes, he’s lying dead on the floor.
Does “The Suicide Squad” overdo it? Of course. It’s a little absurd to even ask that about a movie with a talking shark that rips bodies in half and interstitial debates about, for instance, whether the phrase “tighty whities” is racist. Gunn throws so much into his superhero collider that he sometimes sacrifices depth (backstories are poignant but thin) for wit and idiosyncrasy.
But as over-the-top and thoroughly R-rated as “The Suicide Squad” is, it’s not nihilistic. That’s maybe a questionable argument to make for a film that includes an inside-the-body close-up of a dagger piercing a beating heart. But as much as Gunn steers his movies into chaos, they have a surprising amount of heart and thoughtfulness to them.
They are outcasts, weirdos, laughing stocks and whatever you call Nanaue. That makes “The Suicide Squad” — as ridiculous as it is to say about a movie that renders a bloody rampage with gushes of animated daisies and birdies — kind of beautiful. Plus, the shark in jams is funny.
“Suicide Squad,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity. Running time: 132 minutes. ★★★★
JAKE COYLE, AP Film Writer