Aside from adding ‘the’ to the title, what’s different about James Gunn’s new version of fan-boy favourites Suicide Squad? It’s a sweeping reboot, but retaining the services of some of the same actors, namely Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag and Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, the boss who sends the Suicide Squad on their missions. Given that David Ayer’s 2016 version of Suicide Squad was something of a monument in bad-yet-popular movies, Gunn seems to relish stepping out from the shadows of the original, and The Suicide Squad is a peppier, poppier and earthier version of the comic-book characters. That’s not to say Gunn’s film is flawless, but it’s certainly a vast improvement on the famously soulless original.
A lengthy prologue seen from the POV of Savant (Michael Rooker) features most of a previous suicide squad wiped out; while most of the penitentiary paroles are clearly not up to snuff, it’s something of a relief to see an early bath for Pete Davidson’s annoyingly lunkish dolt Blackguard in the first ten minutes. Harley Quinn is captured in the blood-drenched fiasco, and a new squad has to be generated, to be headed by big boys Idris Elba as Bloodsport, plus John Cena as Peacemaker. The new squad of men-, women- and things on-a-mission head to the deeply grotty island of Croto Maltese in South America, where an extra-terrestrial life-form is mutating in a Nazi-era experimental laboratory. Quinn is too resourceful to need rescued for long, and soon the remaining members of the squads must unite to take on a rapidly growing adversary that looks like a half-baked starfish.
That means we’re in for a big, old-fashioned team-bonds-while-taking-down-a-monster finale a la The Avengers, and Gunn certainly pulls the stops out for an expansive, colourful, sometimes exuberantly immoral end-of-show. Robbie is clearly the break-out, and the film always ups a gear when her stylish, childish, lethal Harley Quinn is on the screen. Less successful are Elba and Cena, saddled with deliberately awful costumes and some wheezing repartee that gives them little chance to shine. Don’t get your hopes up too much for Taita Waititi, who barely gets a single line, or Sylvester Stallone voicing a monosyllabic shark in the tried and tested fashion of Groot from Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Even Peter Capaldi, unflatteringly bald and with electrodes attached to his head, struggles to make much headway on the CGI-fest around him..
While the first Suicide Squad spent too much time scribbling in the margins about Batman and the Joker, there’s only a name-check for Superman to keep the fan-boys hungry; otherwise, The Suicide Squad feels a lot fresher for doing its own wacky thing. Arguably Gunn’s best film to date, this incarnation revels in the kind of the irreverent interactions featured in Guardians of the Galaxy, but a sprightlier plot and some rousing action. The gritty South American setting works well as a contrast with the bursts of fabulous colour when the fight with the aliens kicks off, and the way Gunn punctures then lifts the bleak, violent atmosphere works. This Suicide Squad certainly feels like an upgrade on the first film, and the increasingly downbeat view of superheroes as psychologically-damaged losers who happen to wear masks aggressively advances the DC Universe into fresh and welcome territory.
Thanks to Warner Brothers UK for big-screen access to this big-screen film.
The Suicide Squad hits UK cinemas on July 30th 2021.