The Suicide Squad

Harley Quinn screams

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.

The Suicide Squad
Meet most of the team

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

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Viola Davis as blues queen Ma Rainey


Black Panther and Da 5 Bloods star Chadwick Boseman died 12 days after shooting wrapped on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a fact that colours its critical reception. No one on set even knew that this firecracker performer was ill, let alone that he was being treated for stage four cancer.

Put another way, the film isn’t quite as great as some people say – a good film, a fine film, well acted, snappily directed for sure – but hobbled by its forked construction. Is it actually about Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), or her cocky trumpeter Levee, played by Boseman?

The other fact is that excellent though Boseman is, so are all the other guys who play his fellow bandmates. But Viola Davis is better than them all, and so much better that every time she opens her mouth you realise how much you want the film to be just all about her, not him, or them, or anyone else.

The plot is slender – Ma Rainey, the “queen of the blues”, is recording some songs at a studio owned by a white guy, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), who wants the goods but doesn’t really want to put up with the notoriously difficult Ma.

Waiting for Ma to show up, the band shoot the breeze, a lot of it about the situation of the black man in 1920s USA, especially vis a vis the white man. Take the knocks (and possibly get called an Uncle Tom) or rail against them (and get the “uppity nigger” treatment) are what it boils down to – and yes, that word is used, liberally. The band members are all for fitting in and rolling with the punches, but Levee (Boseman) wants to do his own thing, write his own songs, front his own band. He’s greedy to have it all, and since he’s younger and more talented than they are, why not?


Levee (Chadwick Boseman) leans back against the piano
The challenger: Levee (Chadwick Boseman)


Included on his wish list is Ma’s girl Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and given that Ma already has Levee in her sights because of his attempts to upstage her, and because he wants the music to go in a fresher direction, a clash is obviously coming.

Shot in olde-worlde sepia (yuk), it’s an adaptation of an August Wilson play that seems happy to leave things stagey, the better, perhaps, to focus on performances (Boseman included) of a high calibre and a you-speak-then-I-speak theatricality.

Splay-legged, panda-eyed and glistening with sweat, Viola Davis kicks everyone into the shade as Ma, a bulldog hollerer who wears her “queen” crown lightly – she knows she’s standing on the shoulders of giants – but insists all the same on being treated with dignity, not least because white guys especially don’t need any sort of invitation to do otherwise.

She’s not even in the film that much, in terms of scenes or line count, but her presence is felt even when she’s not there. And it’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, not Trumpeter Levee’s.

The black bottom dance – a variation on the Charleston – is one of those black things that white people went crazy for too, and sets the stage for a discussion of “cultural appropriation”, which August Wilson deals with briskly – fess up (as Ma does when she talks about working a tradition once “owned” by others) or don’t (chiselling Sturdyvant is buying music cheap off black musicians for white musicians to play).

Ma Rainey ’s Black Bottom is the second adaptation of an August Wilson play to be to be produced by Denzel Washington. Fences was the first, and at the time it kicked off a nine-picture deal with HBO. Since then the deal has shipped over to Netflix. No idea why. Perhaps the staginess just didn’t do it for HBO, like it didn’t do it for me.




© Steve Morrissey 2021