Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Director James Gunn takes ‘Suicide Squad’ on a maniacal romp

Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), Peacemaker (John Cena), King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) in James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad.”  (Warner Bros. Pictures)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

When it comes to the Suicide Squad, perhaps two wrongs do make a right. After David Ayer’s much-lambasted (and yet, Oscar-winning) “Suicide Squad” bowed to critical disdain in 2016, it seemed the gleefully chaotic crew of DC Comics anti-heroes were kaput. Then, lauded “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn was fired from “Guardians 3” by Disney after a rash of unsavory tweets were turned up, and DC/Warner Bros. snapped him up to direct the “Suicide Squad” sequel, “The Suicide Squad.”

Though Gunn has since been reinstated on “Guardians,” his turn with the bad kids of comics feels like the writer/director has been unleashed in the best way. It’s also a return to his roots, as Gunn came up in the world of splatter-fest genre imprint Troma Entertainment under the tutelage of Lloyd Kaufman. The result is a movie that’s a blood-smeared maniacal grin: funny, gory, blackly humorous and all James Gunn.

Many of Gunn’s repertory players make an appearance in “The Suicide Squad”: Michael Rooker; his brother, Sean Gunn; Nathan Fillion; etc. He wastes no time at all getting the crew of misfits together and setting them up on a mission as orchestrated by the ruthless government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who yanks supervillains out of prison for dangerous missions on her Task Force X team. But there’s mischief in the timeline, which hops around to days and minutes earlier, showing us things that happened while we were with other characters or revealing a complete bait and switch.

The team that we end up following is comprised of Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and King Shark (Sylvester Stallone). They link up with Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) in an effort to infiltrate a South American island nation, Corto Maltese, which has just been taken over in a military coup. Waller wants the Suicide Squad to destroy a former Nazi experimentation site in Corto Maltese, where an extra-terrestrial beast is rumored to reside, and contain all threats to the U.S.

It’s your basic black ops mission but with incredibly colorful characters, and Gunn keeps the tone light and lively. Elba and Cena banter and smack-talk their way through, these two otherwise tough guys finally allowed to be funny, for once. Robbie, in what is one of the most indelible screen performances of the 21st century as Harley Quinn, is now three for three on home runs in this role. She’s simply mesmerizing as the seductive and silly jester princess. But the other characters are welcome additions, as well, especially Melchior as a girl whose superpower is (checks notes) controlling rats.

What’s remarkable about “The Suicide Squad,” is that for all its bloody sneering and snark, you care about all of these characters who actually feel like real people. Even as it climaxes in a surreal and hallucinatory kaiju explosion that’s a cartoonish mashup of “Godzilla,” “Alien” and even Gunn’s 2006 directorial debut, “Slither,” the actual conflict is grounded in real political history.

And the film makes a razor-sharp commentary on American intervention overseas, especially in Central America. It’s not often a comic book flick will have you critiquing Reagan-era politics while also enjoying the lizard-brain pleasures of a creature feature smash-em-up, but that’s just the special sauce that Gunn brings. Here’s hoping he heads to the dark side again soon.