The Suicide Squad, not to be confused with Suicide Squad from five years ago, fixes the mistake made by the 2016 movie, which got bogged down in plot. The Suicide Squad does that by not really having one. Or if it does it treats it as something to be vaguely referred to now and again, like a map by a driver who knows his way.
The driver here is James Gunn, who does just about everything right in this super-sequel follow-up to the Dirty Dozen of comicbook movies. The first film was quite simply terrible, though bursting with great things, a kind of satire on Marvel movies, if you wanted to see it that way, which not only lost its way in arcane storytelling but got weighed down carrying the baggage of its stars, Margot Robbie and Will Smith.
Smith has gone this time round, to be replaced by Idris Elba, as Bloodsport, boss of the Squad, and Robbie has been put slightly back in her box as the psychotic Harley Quinn – still important as a character, still brilliant as a performance – joined by John Cena’s Peacemaker (the “peace” of the graveyard rather than of “peace, love and understanding”), Ratcatcher 2 (Portuguese actor Daniela Melchior effective as a woman who controls rodents), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian, underused, perhaps because the character’s ability to spray the world with killer polka dots is too out there, even for this film), and shark-with-legs King Shark (played by Steve Agee, voiced by Sylvester Stallone). Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, craggy, pumped, looks like he’s been gorging on human growth hormone) joins them later, along with Alice Braga as the leader of a group of South American rebels trying to storm the enclave of the junta that’s taken over her tiny island country of Corto Maltese.
A military coup in South America isn’t really the territory for superheroes, even ones this shonky, so add in some Nazis and a malevolent extraterrestrial, the connection between the junta, Hitler refugees and outer space being a mad-scientist character called Thinker (Peter Capaldi with what look like old radio valves stuck on his head).
Back at base, doing for the Squad what Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury does in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Viola Davis, again a standout as the badass with a “motherfucker” for every situation. Funny. The tone is relentlessly Guardians of the Galaxy, which Gunn also wrote and directed. Quippy rather than hilarious, but non-stop quippy, and with a focus on detail that really makes a difference. At one point the Squad go to a nightclub and every one of the extras looks exactly as they should, like sweaty and slightly skanky party people having such a good time they look almost bored with it all. And if you loved Groot’s vocabulary consisting of about one word (“Groot”), chances are you’ll also warm to King Shark’s command of the monosyllable.
As said, Polka-Dot Man feels a bit surplus to requirements but the rest of the cast interact brilliantly as Gunn runs the Squad through the superhero movie playbook – gunfight, fistfight, Reservoir Dogs slo-mo group shot, one-against-many encounter – with everyone bantering, bickering and quipping as they go. Robbie and Elba get the best of it, as you might expect, Elba being particularly good, and partly because he’s using his own London accent, a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone which makes every “For fuck’s sake” ring true.
It’s not really what it is, it’s how expertly and relentlessly well it’s done. Gunn is having fun, and breaks the fourth wall repeatedly, and in different ways. At one point, when the giant starfish Starro breaks free from his confines and starts menacing the city, Gunn deliberately references Godzilla, just because.
I thought I detected, in the sweatily exotic location where criminals rule the roost and the outlaws are the good guys, a whiff of Casablanca too. Fanciful, maybe, but The Suicide Squad also has Casablanca’s fantastic pace and plot compression. That, really, is what makes it so good.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021