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The Suicide Squad Review: The Way Of The Gunn

The best thing to say about 2021's "The Suicide Squad," a do-over of the underwhelming 2016 "Suicide Squad," is that it feels like a James Gunn movie. The worst thing to say about the film is that, well, it feels like a James Gunn movie.

Rather than adapt his sizable flair to fit the material, the characters here have been bent, reimagined and sometimes changed beyond all recognition to service "the horribly beautiful mind of James Gunn." If you can't wait to see "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3," you're in luck — it's in theaters now, with many of the same franchise actors, music-driven scenes, barely verbal anthropomorphic sidekicks and endearingly screwed-up anti-heroes battling a monster from outer space — but you're also not, because this isn't a "Guardians" film, it just almost always feels like one.

Gunn is smart to launch immediately into the sequel with very little explanation — just like there's no need to keep killing Batman's parents in movie after movie, if you don't know the set-up to "The Suicide Squad" by now, why are you even in the theater? "You know the deal," says Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, one of the few actors returning from David Ayer's previous "Squad" mission. "Successfully complete the mission, you get ten years off your sentence. If you fail to follow my orders in any way, I detonate the explosive device in the base of your skull."

Then it's off to the races, and the film begins with what might be its best scene. We follow along as Captain Boomerang, the endearingly-off-the-wall Weasel, loudmouthed Blackguard, goofily overconfident TDK and others are recruited, relocated and dumped on a beach in the fictional island nation of Corto Maltese. Notice that the names of the actors who play those roles weren't listed just now — because although they are populated by some fan favorites, it's not even worth taking the time to learn their names. The group has been assembled by Waller to be nothing more than a noisy distraction, cannon fodder while the "real" Suicide Squad sneak onto the island via an adjacent beach.

This "A Team" consists of Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), King Shark (the voice of Sylvester Stallone), Polka-Dot Man (an outstanding David Dastmalchian) and Ratcatcher II (another very endearing character, this one played by Daniela Melchior). They don't care for each other very much, and it seems quite likely King Shark will eat someone or the sullen Polka-Dot Man will off himself before someone else has the chance — but together, they form an uneasy alliance of master criminals. Through various developments, this group is soon joined by the how-the-heck-did-they-survive-the-fake-invasion duo of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, returning from the last "Squad" movie) and Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, ditto).

The mission, this time, is to infiltrate the island and destroy a Nazi-era laboratory/prison called Jotunheim, where something called "Project Starfish" is going down — and enemies of the state have been sent for years, never to return.

On their way, each member of the Waller-christened "Task Force X" have their own side mission and/or personal conflict to overcome. Flag befriends Sol Soria (Alice Braga), a freedom fighter who wants to partner with his team to take down the current regime — as long as the Squad doesn't kill her compatriots first. Harley Quinn has perhaps the most fun adventure, finding new romance with the country's handsome Presidente General, while Bloodsport is determined to keep his head down and get a reduced sentence for his recently arrested daughter. Ratcatcher II misses her rat-catching dad (the now-omnipresent Taika Waititi), King Shark is teaching himself to stop eating friends, and Polka-Dot Man ... well, he hates his mom so much that every enemy he looks at becomes her, making him want to obliterate them all the more.

King Shark and Chum

This leads to some double-crosses, many, many scenes of people being decapitated and/or torn in half, and a giant showdown at the end with a sullen, mind-sucking starfish.

The best directors — Scorsese, Tarantino, Fincher, the Coens — fill the filmgoer with palpable anticipation before the first image even hits the screen. You're anticipating a wild ride, one both unpredictable and — based on past experience — one that seems certain to thrill. Other movies are at a disadvantage right off the bat, because they feel like movies. A film from a master filmmaker feels, well ... alive.

With the 2014 release of "Guardians," Gunn entered that master filmmaker conversation. He is the preeminent superhero director (sorry, Zack Snyder and Russos), but he is also such an offbeat, defiant, signature personality that he simultaneously feels like an arthouse director. His use of hand-picked music tracks (which he typically selects during the writing process) always feels like he's introducing the viewer to their next favorite song, and his visual style (exemplified here by a dazzling sequence in which Harley Quinn mows down a few dozen baddies as their spraying blood transforms into colorful flower petals) is up there with the best of them.

Gunn should also be commended for tap-dancing gracefully across bomb-laden ground that has exploded in the face of many a filmmaker. Lots of would-be-comic-book adapters talk about getting past "good guy" vs. "bad guy" cliches, but it's a rare movie that truly makes the villains good and the heroes bad to the point where they're all occupying the same grey area. "The Suicide Squad" achieves that, effortlessly.

Then there's the unpredictability level. Way back in the early '60s, Alfred Hitchcock became obsessed with audience expectations of who lives, who dies, and how that informs their ultimate enjoyment of a film. Much of "Psycho" was designed as an experiment in manipulating these expectations — at the time, it was stunning that a big star like Janet Leigh would be featured most prominently on the poster, then killed at the end of the first act. Gunn has mastered the near-impossible task — all these decades later — of consistently creating environments where the audience member has no idea who is going to live and who is going to die, and that makes for a perversely thrilling experience in a film like "The Suicide Squad," one which deserves praise.

Margot Robbie is so fun, you'll hope she gets another three movies to keep building this signature character who seems to be getting better with each outing. Idris Elba, John Cena and Viola Davis are solid, Dastmalchian and Melchior are outstanding — and so is Julio Ruiz as Milton, the funniest joke in a very funny script. The cast is having a lot of fun with this film, and it shows.

Those are people who died, died

But Gunn's considerable powers have also reached the point where he can come with an idea like, say, the twee, uninformative titles littered throughout this film and no one steps in to tell him they should be left on the cutting room floor. Or that you can see reveals (like when the Squad stealthily disposes of a village of well-intentioned freedom fighters, thinking they're the enemy) long before the characters on the screen realize what's going on. Or that the Thinker's backstory is nonexistent, or that King Shark feels like Groot 2.0. Then there's a big twist at the end revealing a "Squad" member's loyalties that is necessary to the plot, not in the least bit earned.

This is the best Marvel movie that DC has ever made, and that seems unfortunate. DC has always been the home of gods, while Marvel has been the home of people — with all their flaws — grappling with the responsibilities, duties and complexities of power.

It has sometimes been hard for laymen to keep track of which hero house certain characters come from (just take a look at the whole "Captain Marvel" thing), but to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's description of obscenity: You know it when you see it. Looking at the way the characters behave, the personal issues they're grappling with, and the scale of the story, the DC brand has spent most of its life being quite distinctive.

It's in the eyes of you, the moviegoer, to decide whether this erosion of tone is a good thing — but the blurring of this particular line feels like a mistake, something akin to the time the Beach Boys tried to do a rap song or Vanilla Ice released a heavy metal record. Breaking boundaries can be thrilling — but sometimes their dissolution leaves the audience unmoored and ultimately frustrated.

When all is said and done, James Gunn's "The Suicide Squad" is the "Halloween III" of "Guardians of the Galaxy" films — one with completely different characters and a lesser hook, but nonetheless appealing to fans of the franchise. Call it "GOtG 2.5." Sure, some might be a bit confused by the lack of flipping comic book pages in the opening credits, but as long you don't mind a healthy heaping of Marvel in your DC, you'll want to roll out to the theater with your Squad.