'The Suicide Squad' review: You will believe a shark can cry (and eat people alive)
You’re either the kind of person who likes watching a giant bipedal shark man eat bad guys, or you’re not.
If you’re not, blessings to you.
If you are, baby, you’re going to love “The Suicide Squad.” The latest movie based on the DC Comics characters is out in theaters and streaming on HBO Max this weekend.
You have just as much access to Wikipedia as I do, so I’ll spare you the sordid behind-the-scenes context. But in short, director-writer James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) takes over the franchise reins from 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” a movie that was both pretty terrible and made a swimming pool full of money. This film has just enough familiar touches to feel connected to the previous entry, but it’s a largely standalone film.
Tacking a definitive article to the front of the first flick’s title speaks volumes, as if to say, “No, this one’s legit, though.”
In the spirit of Gunn’s once-more-with-feeling take, “The Suicide Squad” finds cutthroat government operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, get your paycheck) handpicking yet another group of imprisoned DC supervillains to serve as Task Force X. The gist: For the missions too dirty and too deadly for the good guys, send in the bad guys, in exchange for reduced prison time. Also, implant bombs in their heads just in case they get any funny criminal ideas, or if they just piss Waller off.
The objective: Destroy all traces of Project Starfish, a mysterious mad science experiment housed in a former Nazi lab in the Latin American nation of Corto Maltese. The squad: familiar faces like clown princess of chaos Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), gimmicky Australian bogan Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and honorable soldier-cum-babysitter Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), plus new recruits like master assassin Bloodsport (Idris Elba), right-wing murder machine Peacemaker (John Cena), oddball Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and rodent-controlling legacy act Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior).
Oh, also: our beloved and very hungry mutant King Shark (voiced, thank the shark gods, by Sylvester Stallone).
The DC films have been notoriously inconsistent compared with the culture-defining juggernauts of their Marvel rivals, ranging from “Hey, that’s pretty good” (the first “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman,” “Shazam” and, if you ask me, “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey”) to “Hmm, well, nevertheless, they tried” (the Henry Cavill-starring Superman films and, well, “Suicide Squad”). The good ones have all had one thing in common: They feel like the bright, funny, thrilling comic books they’re based on, instead of self-serious fan fiction filmed and edited like a sludgy "Twilight” sequel or a Slipknot video.
“The Suicide Squad” is cartoonishly violent, inventively stylish, outrageously funny and just as unhinged as any adventure from the four-color world of Superman and Batman. And, crucially, Gunn’s vision contains real affection for the killers and kooks of Task Force X, even when they’re dying in ways that leave the set looking like a truck of Ragu crashed on a highway.
I repeat: If widescreen fantasias of viscera swirling in the air aren’t your bag, a movie called “The Suicide Squad” is bound to disappoint.
Enough can’t be said about how the visual aspects of this film set it apart from any other super-action flick, from inventive camera work (a fight scene filmed entirely in the reflection of Cena’s shiny helmet, Robbie twirling in a round corridor as she waltzes with machine guns) to outré visual effects (Elba taking a floor-collapsing shortcut to the bottom level of a tower, Polka-Dot Man’s distinctly “bang zoom pow” ability to throw polka dots at people looking like the world’s prettiest lava lamp). Gunn also uses chapter titles that are baked right into the scenery, a flourish that feels like it’s right out of comic art icon Will Eisner’s playbook.
If you’ve seen Gunn’s Marvel movies, you know that the jokes are tight, if often pitch black here. (One murderous gag where Cena and Elba infiltrate a militia camp is a guilt-laden gut-buster of horrifying physical comedy.) Luckily, the cast is completely game, especially Robbie, whose Harley Quinn has now managed to be the best part of three separate films. She’s a wisecracking, stunt-pulling Tex Avery cartoon come to life. One of the only disappointments in the movie is that the sprawling cast means she rides shotgun for much of the runtime.
That’s not a knock on that sprawling cast, which is full of character actor cameos for the casual fans and deep-cut comic book baddies for the nerds. Even the big threat of Project Starfish, which I won’t go into here but you can glean from the trailers, is emblematic of the absurd, high-concept imagination that keeps Hollywood coming back to the land of super powers.
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Again, that’s the biggest strength of “The Suicide Squad” — embracing the capes-and-tights minutiae of an eight-decade-old medium to prove that the source material barely needs a punch-up to entertain the masses.
You will believe a shark can cry. And … eat people. But I suppose that’s kind of a given.
'The Suicide Squad'
Starring: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Sylvester Stallone
Director: James Gunn
Rated: R for drug use, brief graphic nudity, language throughout, some sexual references, strong violence and gore
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Watch: In theaters and streaming on HBO Max