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The Suicide Squad review: James Gunn makes a body count beautiful

It’s nothing new for Warner Bros. Pictures to give underwhelming comic-book movies a big-budget do-over. After all, this is the same studio that gave Zack Snyder’s Justice League the opportunity to rewrite history (and defy pundits) with a re-cut, superior version of 2017’s Justice League just a few months ago.

So it makes sense that James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad rises from the ashes of its similarly titled, critically panned 2016 predecessor Suicide Squad this week to deliver a much-improved film about DC Comics’ infamous supervillain special ops team.

What is surprising, however, is that The Suicide Squad improves on the original with one of the best DC Comics movies of the last few years, and the first film in the studio’s DC Extended Universe to measure up well with its Marvel counterparts.

The cast of The Suicide Squad standing in the jungle.

Return of the Squad

Written and directed by Gunn, The Suicide Squad is a pseudo-sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad (sans “The“), which followed a team of DC Comics supervillains forced to undertake dangerous missions by the ruthless head of a secret government agency. Like each new chapter of the comic book series that inspired it, The Suicide Squad tells a fresh story within that premise featuring a (mostly) different cast of colorful criminals.

This time around, the film’s team of prison inmates  — officially known as Task Force X — is assembled to infiltrate the fictional South American island nation of Corto Maltese and destroy a Nazi-era laboratory located there along with all of the research material housed within it. Notable members of the team include the viciously efficient mercenary Bloodsport, played by Idris Elba, and the lethal, self-professed defender of peace, Peacemaker, played by John Cena. Returning from the prior film is Margot Robbie’s wonderfully crazy Harley Quinn, as well as team leader Rick Flag, the group’s only non-conscripted member, played by returning actor Joel Kinnaman.

As one might expect from a mission involving a multitude of untrustworthy agents, the plan goes awry, and the surviving members of Task Force X soon find themselves facing off against a threat greater than anything they anticipated, with the fate of the entire world at stake.

Filter that familiar, Dirty Dozen-style adventure through the lens of Guardians of the Galaxy and Slither director James Gunn, and The Suicide Squad quickly establishes itself as one of the most audacious, irreverent, and unpredictable films in the DCEU franchise so far.

The cast of The Suicide Squad walking through the rain.

Sorry, kids

With a title like The Suicide Squad, it’s safe to assume Gunn’s film isn’t an all-ages adventure, and it doesn’t take long for the film to earn its age-restricted “R” rating.

Parents expecting something akin to Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films for Marvel Studios should take heed: Not only does The Suicide Squad have an impressively high body count, the kills go the extra mile when it comes to shock value. Every bit of blood, guts, and shattered bone finds its way to the screen, resulting in a gloriously over-the-top symphony of ultra-violence befitting the film’s cast of costumed psychopaths.

The Suicide Squad also offers a great reminder that Gunn is a master of wringing dark humor from movie violence.

In 2006’s creature feature Slither, he expertly walked the line between humor and horror, while in 2010’s Super, he explored the brutal (and sometimes brutally funny) consequences of superhero worship and vigilantism. His adventure with Task Force X blends the best elements of both films, boosted by a top-tier superhero movie budget, an all-star cast of talented actors, the freedom that comes with its unbridled rating, and the sort of brand familiarity built into an established cinematic universe.

The full package is a cinematic house of cards that could’ve easily collapsed under the weight of its own potential, but Gunn makes the most of every opportunity he’s given in The Suicide Squad.

The cast of The Suicide Squad standing in rubble.

Who lives, who dies

The biggest questions in the lead-up to the release of The Suicide Squad tend to focus on which characters — if any — are likely to be alive when the credits finally roll.

Identifying which actors in The Suicide Squad deserved more screen time or weren’t fully realized in the time they were given crosses a bit too far into spoiler territory, so it’s fortunate that there isn’t a weak performance among the bunch. Gunn keeps you guessing with the film’s rogues gallery, and each character gets a moment in the spotlight, even when it’s quickly followed by a sudden, gruesome death.

Elba and Robbie — as well as David Dastmalchian, who plays the troubled villain Polka-Dot Man — do a nice job of never letting their characters feel like heroes, even when they’re doing the right thing. That’s important, because it prevents the film from disappearing into the crowded field of hero-centric comic book movies and corrects one of the flaws of the 2016 film, which pushed its redemptive arc so far that it dulled its most interesting elements.

Ultimately, The Suicide Squad shares more in common with a show like Amazon’s The Boys than Wonder Woman or Justice League, and that’s a unique space that plays well to Gunn’s strengths as a filmmaker.

The cast of characters in the Suicide Squad cast stands in the jungle.

Big screen, big decisions

At a time when the pandemic has forced audiences to think twice about heading back to movie theaters — particularly with positive coronavirus test cases on the rise again in many regions — Warner Bros. is wisely making The Suicide Squad available both theatrically and via streaming service HBO Max.

For this review, The Suicide Squad was streamed on a 65-inch 4K television with a basic surround-sound audio system. It looked — and sounded — impressive on a home theater, and the film clearly takes full advantage of both the screen size and audio with some spectacular, effects-driven sequences. Although The Suicide Squad would be satisfying to watch on any screen, a more immersive environment would only add to the film’s entertainment value, whether that environment is found in a cineplex or a high-end home theater system.

From its big surprises to its even bigger spectacle, along with its expertly blended mix of over-the-top action and comedy, The Suicide Squad delivers on every bit of its potential thanks to a talented cast, a smart, daring script, and the expertise of one of Hollywood’s most entertaining filmmakers.

Warner Bros. Pictures’ The Suicide Squad premieres August 5 in U.S. theaters and August 6 on HBO Max.

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