How does one go about assembling a team of D-list misfits for an evolving medium wherein corporate shilldom for costumed characters has run amuck? Give your copy/paste protagonist long dormant family issues? Check. Get a well-known action star to groan out one-liners from a silly CGI character? Check. Cast a wrestler against their assumed type and play up their idiotic side? Check. Set your montages against needle drops that make it seem as though the director just discovered Spotify last night? Check! Check!

Artists are, of course, prone to repeat themselves, and while James Gunn certainly made his mark on the genre back with 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” it’s telling how many precise creative ticks he lifts from an already successful endeavor with his latest super-powered team-up. In innumerable ways, DC’s “The Suicide Squad” is a movie he’s made before, and a movie audiences have seen before. In spirit and structure, and specific detailing, at least. Put together like this however, the pay-off is surprisingly mature and mindful of its troubled roots, undercutting much that audiences expect from genre, while reinforcing a few other problems as well.

In the same way that Gunn’s opening of ‘Guardians’ harnessed the power of 80s blockbuster gem Raiders of the Lost Ark” and Spielberg boyish-charm wonder with the origin of Starlord, his first DC Universe film evokes that of 80s interventionist war movies, meshed with scarred, tough guy action vehicles of the same period. To this critic’s surprise, it’s a crass “The Expendables,” by way of “Full Metal Jacket,” (a movie which, ironically, features a lead character called Joker) and, to paraphrase Gene Siskel’s review of Kubrick’s two-part film—now-considered-to-be classic, but incredibly divisive at the time of release—you’ve never felt on-screen kills quite like this, especially in a superhero flick.

Something in between a soft reboot and a direct sequel (it’s certainly more of a successor to David Ayer’s 2016 train wreck than 2019’s similarly incongruous “Birds of Prey,” helmed by Cathy Yan) Gunn handles the beginning of his latest as a sarcastic hand-off sequence, using more than half the characters he’s pulled from the comics as (*inevitable minor spoilers*) literal cannon fodder. The always stone-faced Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is, again, in desperate need of a team of specialist to bail the U.S. out of a jam, this time involving a scientific program gone wrong called Project Starfish, backed by the enigmatic Thinker (Peter Capaldi). Calling in reliable Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, a lot less brooding and boring this time around) to head a team on a black ops mission to the isle of Corto Maltese, reuniting with former squadmates, Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie), better known as Harley Quinn, and “Digger” Harkness, a.k.a. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), who are joined by the likes of new members such as Blackguard, Javelin, Mongal, T.D.K., and Weasel. Some kind of something mission is officially ago.

As soon as Task Force X is on a plane it’s obvious where the opening is going, and, in many regards, the blood bath to come is needlessly sprightful in its gleeful brutality, but it is also necessary table setting for the message that follows. Because Amanda Waller always has at least one back-up plan, a second team is already in place, headed by the exhausted mercenary vet, Bloodsport (an outstanding Idris Elba, feeling much more comfortable in his armor than Will Smith’s Bloodshot ever did). This second Suicide Squad also consists of John Cena’s loudly patriotic Peacemaker, the maniacal King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone)—the supposed descendent of an ancient sea god—Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior)—because Ratcatcher I already dead—and the walking rainbow rash known as the Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian; yes, that’s his name, and, yes, you guessed his power, throwing deadly polka dots).

Though tension is not a word one might immediately attribute to Gunn’s modern work—in the traditional aesthetic sense—”The Suicide Squad” foully illustrates how tonally and textually contradictory elements can graphically crash together during well-timed moments in an effort to say something complex, becoming equal parts vilely palpable and traumatically on-point—the moment the film’s title card drops being a strong sampling of the movie’s penchant for payoff, with Cena’s sure to be breakout character, set-up as the ultimate moral and political oxymoron—the kind of narcissistic ass-wipe who maintains making fun of his tighty-whities is a form of reverse-racism. Audience reaction as well as radically reactionary characters helps juggle multiple storytelling components, Gunn finding a clever tactic to implement deliberate narrative lapses in information in unusual structural ways—reminiscent of a heist film—resulting in an extremely powerful final act firing on all cylinders. How he splits the team up directly affects the action staging, an increasing rarity for overly CGI-dependent cape and cowl climaxes.

Perhaps the greatest example of what Gunn makes work about “The Suicide Squad’s” humor is the casting of David Dastmalchian as Polka Dot Man. Dastmalchian is probably best recognized by audiences for his character roles as mentally-ill figures in movies such as “Prisoners” or “The Dark Knight”—arguably not the most flattering/sympathetic portrayals of those struggling with psychological plights—and what Gunn has done here teeters on brilliant, casting him fully on type, so as to actually delve into the humanity of such often maligned characters by poking fun at our ignorantly loose notions of what constitutes trauma and what categorizes a hero, working it into genre wrapping paper in a manner which both honors and subverts comic book history and its clichés. My only major quibble is that the film sets up a certain, interdimensional aspect of his skillset and never pays it off, but the reasons there are likely budgetary.  

It also cannot be understated how key Elba’s impoverished DGAF performance is to holding the film’s mishmash of tones together. On the flip-side, Harley feels deliberately sidelined for much of the runtime, which may have been a wise decision given Gunn’s creative interests lay in other directions, but he makes her character feel essential to the proceedings when she’s really only there to sell the film and add some semblance of continuity (Harley was only put on the Suicide Squad team when New 52 launched to help sell Ayer’s film). Her big action sequence feels like a complete stylistic outlier from the rest of the movie, but it is expressively impressive. Similarly, some of Gunn’s music choices, specifically The Decemberists Sucker’s Prayer—used to introduce Elba’s character—feels disrespectful of the song’s lovely tenderized lyrics.

A word you’ll likely see come up often this August regarding “The Suicide Squad” is heart, another might be soul, and there are more than a few reasons for that. Besides featuring a literal CGI close-up of a still-beating heart as its being stabbed (a moment that plays infinitely better than it would ever read on the page), and despite its fondness for explicit vulgarity—recognizing the difference between being a government yes-person and assisting in the genuine plight of ordinary folks seen as having no power on this Earth—character is what shines through about Gunn’s movie. It must be said however: many of these narrative machinations are lifted directly from an already successful exercise in the first ‘Guardians’—King Shark is just Groot for adults. Starting things on the image of Michael Rooker’s character ricocheting a bouncy ball against prison cell walls (also serving as a “The Great Escape” homage), hitting every target in perfect succession, evokes the exact same visuals he’s played with already via the character of Yondu and his magic whistle dart, only this time, the superhero movie he’s made is not intended for the Mary Poppins’ crowd, but those saddled with hiring a babysitter in order to spend one entertaining night out.

“The Suicide Squad” opens in theaters and starts streaming on HBO Max August 6

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