At its best, Gunn manages to wed the team-of-misfits goofiness, garnished with a pinch of heart, from his “Guardians of the Galaxy” films for rival Marvel with the cheerful gore and irreverence of “Deadpool,” catering to fans eager to see heroes (or villains) allowed to utterly cut loose.
This new “Suicide Squad” also shrewdly cherry-picks the best elements from David Ayer’s film, bringing back Margot Robbie as the Joker’s homicidal sidekick Harley Quinn, Joel Kinnaman as square-jawed Colonel Rick Flag and Viola Davis as the ruthless government bureaucrat who oversees Task Force X, whose underlings obviously prefer the more colloquial nickname when wagering on who will survive the mission. (Ayer has recently discussed that the movie released wasn’t his cut, but any comparisons at this point can only be based on what audiences have seen.)
It’s the specifics of the mission, actually, where “Suicide Squad” breaks down a bit, with the team dispatched to a fictional island nation known as Corto Maltese, one that has recently experienced a coup, putting at risk a secret facility where an alien intelligence is reportedly being held.
The squad’s job is to penetrate the country and destroy said facility, wading — with a whole lot of hiccups — through a seemingly endless supply of soldiers set up to be folded, spindled and mutilated in creative and colorful ways.
Leading the team, grudgingly, is a crack shot named Bloodsport (Idris Elba), whose skills essentially mirror those of Peacemaker (John Cena), another marksman supreme. Throw in the always-hungry King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone, channeling Groot), and the powers and characters grow increasingly obscure — unless you’re a fan of Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) — clearly having fun with the stranger quadrants of the comic-book universe, tonally in much the way the recent Disney+ series “Loki” did.
In a sense, the mere fact that movies have the latitude to play so intricately off comic-book lore reflects the genre’s cinematic maturation, as does the blood-soaked canvas upon which Gunn is allowed to paint, speckled with dark comedy and even commentary about US foreign policy. Just in terms of boundaries, DC (like CNN and Warner Bros., a unit of WarnerMedia) has circled back to territory that “Watchmen” occupied a dozen years ago.
Still, it becomes increasingly apparent that “Suicide Squad” is essentially in a contest to keep topping itself, meaning if there’s a particularly gruesome sequence early on, expect something specifically designed to up the ante before it’s over.
To his credit, Gunn deftly juggles a dizzying assortment of elements, creating memorable moments for his principals (Robbie, for example, fares much better here than in Harley’s dedicated showcase vehicle), and allowing the various characters to putty in details basically on the fly, usually in the form of dark sob stories.
What the movie really lacks, finally, is an antagonist worthy of the team. Then again, thanks to its other upgrades, “Suicide Squad” seems even less likely to stay dead this time around, so perhaps that’s a shortcoming that can be addressed in the next edition.
“The Suicide Squad” premieres August 6 in US theaters and on HBO Max. It’s rated R.