Friday, October 29, 2021

"The Suicide Squad": review

Harley, touched that people are trying to rescue her

[WARNING: slight spoilers of the movie's beginning.]

"The Suicide Squad" is the 2021 sequel/reboot of 2016's "Suicide Squad," which ended up being a box-office turd. I've seen only parts of the first movie, but I sat through the 2021 film last night, and I have to say... there were moments that made me laugh out loud. The movie struck a dark tone but didn't take itself at all seriously, which is a quality I appreciate. Sometimes, the best movies are the ones blessed with an unselfconscious sense of fun. That said, there were also some draggy moments during which the main plot bogged down to follow this or that sidetracked subplot.

The film is directed by James Gunn who, up to that point, had more of an association with Marvel (Gunn notably worked on the Guardians of the Galaxy movies; the Suicide Squad is a DC property); Gunn brought his trademark morbid, gory sense of humor to this modern take on "The Dirty Dozen," in which a group of quirky criminals gets recruited to help save the world in exchange for ten years off their respective sentences. It stars Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, Alice Braga, and Pete Davidson (along with a host of other stars). With such a large ensemble cast, some characters will obviously make more of an impression than others, although most of the main characters do get more than a moment to shine, often in hilarious ways.

At the risk of spoiling the movie's beginning, I'll note that we begin with a red herring: the Suicide Squad we initially meet is only a distraction meant to act as cannon fodder while the real Suicide Squad lands elsewhere and takes advantage of the distraction provided by the dummy team. Of that dummy team, only Rick Flag (Kinnaman) and Harley Quinn (Robbie) survive. They eventually join up with the main team, led by Bloodsport (Elba), a soldier-assassin who, like Will Smith's Deadshot before him, has an unerring aim and can make practically anything into a weapon. On the team with Bloodsport is Peacemaker (Cena), a pathologically patriotic soldier who will kill as many people as it takes to bring about peace; Ratcatcher 2 (Melchior), a kindhearted soul who has a device invented by her genius dad (Taika Waititi, who plays the original Ratcatcher) that allows her to control any rats in the area (and there are always thousands of rats in the area); King Shark (Stallone), a brutish, half-man/half-shark hybrid with a taste for human flesh; and Polka-Dot Man (Dastmalchian), who is the mutant result of experiments promoted by his fanatical mother, a woman obsessed with breeding superheroes. Polka-Dot Man's power is the ability to fire thousands of glowing polka dots at people, dissolving their flesh. He's also saddled with a death wish.

The movie's principal story is about sending these two strike teams down to the fictional Latin country of Corto Maltese (long a DC staple), which has just undergone a military coup. On the island is an old Nazi facility called Jotunheim, in which languishes a captured starfish-like alien—dubbed "Starro"—that is being weaponized. The new junta now knows about Jotunheim and sees the alien, which has been "managed" by The Thinker (Capaldi) for over thirty years, as leverage. Meanwhile the US government wants its own involvement with Jotunheim erased, which is what the Suicide Squad is down there for: to destroy Jotunheim utterly. The proverb, alas, is that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and the rest of "The Suicide Squad" is about how the surviving team members have to salvage a plan that goes horribly awry the moment reality sets in.

In terms of character development, most of the main characters end up surprisingly well fleshed out. John Cena is hilarious as Peacemaker, who brags that if he's ordered to eat every dick on a beach covered in dicks, then by God, he'll eat every one of those dicks in the name of liberty. Peacemaker and Bloodsport, both marksmen, take an immediate dislike to each other and engage in several shooting/killing-themed pissing contests throughout the film. Bloodsport has a troubled daughter back home who is at risk of being arrested, or worse, by Amanda Waller (Davis), the ruthless woman running the operation against Corto Maltese. Bloodsport also has a deep fear of rats due to past childhood trauma, which makes him deathly afraid of Sebastian, Ratcatcher 2's favorite rat. Ratcatcher 2 is the most moral member of the group, not really deserving to be there at all. She is a weirdly deep sleeper and an incurable optimist who sees the good in the people around her, even Bloodsport (who considers himself unredeemable). Polka-Dot Man hates his mother and functions best when he imagines that his intended victims all look like her. This leads to some truly hilarious scenes toward the end of the movie when the team finds itself face-to-face with the alien Starro. By the way, if you've seen "Dune" and are disappointed that Dastmalchian didn't have more to do in that movie, watch "The Suicide Squad" to get your Dastmalchian fix: at this point in his career, Dastmalchian has cornered the market on weird, eccentric characters; he's this generation's Brad Dourif). Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn gets some imaginative and funny moments, but it's assumed that she's a known quantity, at this point, so her character doesn't get quite the development the others do. She does, however, have a fantastic post-coital scene with one of the junta leaders that I won't spoil here. (I don't know Harley's back story, so I don't know where she acquired her acrobatic and fighting skills from. She started off as a psychotherapist assigned to the Joker, didn't she?) Sylvester Stallone's King Shark (who also goes by Nanaue) is strangely poignant as a brutish, simple-hearted man-eater with no friends. He does get a hilarious moment, though, with a school of seemingly harmless fish, and he makes friends with Ratcatcher 2, who wants to be friends with everyone. Joel Kinnaman's Rick Flag gets a bit of a character arc as he become increasingly disenchanted with the government he works for. One exception in the character-development department is Peter Capaldi's Thinker, a man with weird metal(?) studs protruding from his bald skull. These projections somehow enhance his intellect, but nothing is ever made of how smart he can be, and in fact, he doesn't come off as especially clever in the film. This lack of development felt like a wasted opportunity.

The plot is ever so slightly nonlinear. It's easy to follow, and it features some creatively laid-out transitions, but every once in a while, you'll see a title card like "Three Days Earlier" or "Eight Minutes Earlier," with past action that leads back up to the present moment. These little hitches don't happen too often, so the general flow of the plot isn't disturbed.

One big question hovering over the movie is whether this dysfunctional group of misfits can actually work together as a team. Without getting into specifics, I can say the answer is yes, almost to the point where it's hard to say who gets top prize for taking down one of the main antagonists. In fact, it could be said that the movie's true big bad, the American government (especially as incarnated in Amanda Waller), doesn't get taken down at all, and indeed, the movie leaves us with several unresolved plot lines, including the fact that, by the end of the movie, our main characters all have explosive devices still planted at the base of each of their skulls, an insurance policy to make sure they've carried out their mission.

As I mentioned earlier, the movie is laugh-out-loud funny at certain moments, but it also has segments that drag a bit, so the pacing is a tad uneven. Overall, though, the film tells a coherent story, and the bulk of the main characters are fleshed out enough to earn our sympathy or our disdain. Most of the movie's bad guys (I feel bad for not mentioning the largely Latin cast) serve as little more than a backdrop to allow our main characters to interact with each other, which is the same syndrome one sees in most Marvel films that don't feature Thanos. This movie is more about the journey, less about the destination. By the end, though, you may find yourself caring enough about some of the characters to wonder what might befall them next, and this open-endedness hints at the possibility of a sequel.

Thus far, I've avoided talking about the dummy team at the beginning of the movie, which features James Gunn regular Nathan Fillion as TDK, The Detachable Kid, who can pop his limbs off at will so that they can float around and do... not much of anything; Michael Rooker as the long-haired, emotionally unstable Savant; Jai Courtney (who was in 2016's "Suicide Squad") as Captain Boomerang; James Gunn's brother Sean Gunn as Weasel, an anthropoid weasel who hacks and coughs and shows little intelligence or awareness; Pete Davidson as Blackguard, the group's betrayer, who ends up getting his just reward; Mayling Ng as Mongal, an alien assassin who barely registers; Flula Borg as Javelin, who flirts a bit with Harley Quinn at the very beginning before handing Harley his javelin as he's dying on a beach (Harley spends most of the movie wondering what she's supposed to do with the javelin). The always-winsome Alice Braga shows up as a rebel leader on Corto Maltese, but she's not given very much to do, and her revolutionary side plot is barely relevant to the main story. Most of these folks have little more than cameos, but I suppose their main importance is in setting the stage for when the real Suicide Squad appears.

Overall, I'd give the movie a cautious thumbs-up. It really did make me laugh at certain points, but there were other moments that were either distractions or slow buildups to a predictable punchline. In terms of intensity, my tolerance for cinematic gore is pretty high, so seeing a guy's face get blown off in the name of comedy doesn't bother me all that much; that said, the movie's best kills are the ones involving emotional impact. All in all, I'd welcome a sequel; "The Suicide Squad" does a decent job of getting you invested in these characters' fates, and when some of the main characters kick the bucket, you feel it. Most importantly, the movie doesn't take itself seriously, and that sense of fun is its most redeeming quality.

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