‘The Suicide Squad’ tries, fails as a messy attempt at redemption

Photo of Suicide Squad
Warner Bros./Courtesy

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

This summer’s “The Suicide Squad”— a stand-alone, kind-of-not-really sequel touting brand new characters, gore and questionable penis jokes — wants to prove that indeed, second chances are aplenty for villains both off and on the screen. 

Everyone, especially Warner Brothers, is still trying their hardest to forget David Ayer’s 2016 version of a “Suicide Squad.” The only redeeming thing about that film was that the on-screen presence of Jared Leto’s Joker was mercifully short. 

As a result, the studio enlisted James Gunn, the “Guardians of the Galaxy” director who was fired by Marvel, hired by DC Entertainment and then later rehired by Marvel after the surfacing of a series of bizarre tweets that joked about pedophilia and practically every other sensitive topic imaginable. Gunn was given the opportunity not only to rescue his own reputation but also to give the DC live-action franchise a second chance at not being completely awful. 

Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad” follows Task Force X, a new assembly with a crew that is equal parts violent and useless, formed by the returning girlboss Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). She sends them to the fictional island of Corto Maltese and assigns them the Sisyphean task of appeasing her by taking down Jotunheim, a former Nazi-era laboratory still conducting human experiments through Project Starfish. 

Gunn, in all of his creativity, decided to title his film by simply adding an article to the 2016 film’s title, a haughty emphasis pushing the point that his version is the version and, in other words, better. In many ways, “The Suicide Squad” is better. And while it’s due in part to the fact the bar was set exceedingly low by Ayer, it’s also because Gunn’s film is rougher, tougher and allows itself to be a whole lot more fun than Ayer’s version.

The film fixes its focus on being as down and dirty as possible, akin to a gritty war caper, which is exactly why it’s exciting at first. Fight scenes are exhilaratingly explosive, and Peacemaker’s (John Cena) sweaty crotch garnered more screen time than most characters — a recipe for fun. 

However, most glaringly, anytime “The Suicide Squad” approaches the illusion of being good, its pacing and penchant for trumpeting its star-studded cast distract from its mission. When we’re introduced to the initial squad, it’s Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and some other people: a tacked-on, unimportant cast of characters thrust upon the audience without much of an introduction or purpose. It’s not until the film focuses on the main motley crew led by Bloodsport (Idris Elba) that it starts calibrating the gore at its core. 

While Ayer tried filling in the void of creating an actually watchable movie with untethered sob stories, Gunn molds characters who are much easier to invest in. Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) (imagine Snow White in her Rat Girl Summer era) earns sympathy as she juggles learning to embrace a “Ratatouille”-esque power of controlling rodents, while still bestowing kindness upon the dumb and desperate-for-friends King Shark (Sylvester Stallone). 

It’s a shame her bond with Bloodsport and the raw emotions each and every actor brings get lost in the overly processed, chaotic sauce. Gunn squanders the humanity they bring for characters arguing about eating “a big bag of dicks,” or an overextended joke about some guy named Milton. 

Of course, Robbie, as always, is spectacular. She’s hyper-competent in this, the third film starring her version of Harley Quinn, which again trumps its predecessor by awarding the character a dedicated subplot. Harley does what any sane woman would do after seeing red flags in a man: She promptly murders him. The happiness, rage and determination on Robbie’s face combine for a perfect dynamism, triumphant especially in comparison to 2016’s bland iteration of her character. 

“The Suicide Squad” is a particularly appropriate venue for Gunn’s comeback. Like Leto somehow being allowed to be Joker again, in both fiction and the real world, white men get second chances and praise for being brave enough to not recognize the gravity of their mistakes. In a perfect world, people would be held accountable for their actions.  In the real world, they get $185 million for a shabby project that lets them leave their past behind. 

Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected].