The Suicide Squad

***

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Suicide Squad
"I didn't hate it, but if I wanted to watch more than two hours of the undeniably weird doing the inexplicable, The Sparks Brothers is also in cinemas." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

A cynical and bloody exercise in reputation management, willing to cut corners in service of its goals and uncaring about its casualties or moral compromises is, somewhat amusingly, the driving element of the plot of The Suicide Squad. It is almost certainly not indicative that there are threats to children, an employee revolt, not one but two Pyrrhic Platoons, nor that in borrowing graphic furniture from 70s Grindhouse and graphic violence from 2007's Grindhouse this feels not only familiar, but possibly tired.

Margot Robbie returns, and while her Harley Quinn gets a John Wick-style corridor bloodbath that resembles a herbally-infused version of Equilibrium she's mostly underserved. She's in part comic relief in a comic book movie, and when Polka-Dot Man isn't the punchline it's hard to spot a good reason why. There is a sequence that made me wonder if we'd get an Evita inspired dream sequence, but no. In several places The Suicide Squad is more conservative than a life peer who'd fly across an ocean to vote for a reduction in tax credits and then complain that the same government didn't value the arts.

I'd say that might be projection, but beyond a reference to an overhead cellophane effort in a briefing room, there's an unremarked sequence where footage from what could only be a Shuttle mission unfurls on sprocketed film. STS might not have lasted as long as VHS, but The Suicide Squad's old fashioned sensibilities themselves feel old fashioned.

Set in Corto Maltese, a South American island nation first appearing in DC Comics in 1986, there's a couple of screens that resemble Frank Miller's artwork or at least Lynn Varley's colouring for The Dark Knight Returns. That Corto Maltesians owe their national identity to a name borrowed from an Italian adventure comic of the 60s is just another in a litany of thefts and inheritances and Easter Eggs.

There's a McGuffin, a secret project concealed under Jotunheim. A marvel of architecture, it's a giant stone and concrete erection that is revealed to have Nazi taint. Beneath it, "Project Starfish", a big reveal slightly undermined by there being a gigantic inflatable one at the premiere. Starro is both Doctor Who level rubbery-face-mask possessor and "kaiju"-grade city menace. Yet it wobbles through bustling metropolitan Latin America (or a colour graded simulacrum thereof) like a transporter accident involving all the Tellytubbies. It whips as widely back and forth as the film's tone and blame for that currently sits at two sets of feet.

There's doubtless already a campaign brewing to release the Gunn cut, and I don't know how compromised writer/director/poached-from-the other-comics-firm's-movies James was by being given the keys to some hundreds of millions and told to make a movie but I know that it wasn't none. Having Sylvester Stallone voice King Shark is less charming than when Vin Diesel voiced Groot, even if the former gets more lines and a lot more bloodshed. There's a Dirty Dozen, at least, of regrettable supervillains dispatched in service of amoral apparatchik Amanda Waller's "Project X". While Viola Davis is hopefully both having fun and getting paid, the greatest tests of her range here involve her holding her head and being mean in slightly different ways.

I'd single out others, but the numbers of women are artificially boosted by the (differently) discomfiting portrayals of "Polka-Dot Man's Mom" (she never gets a name) who is key to villainous origin and deserves better. Lynne Ashe might manage to appear more times than John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich but without the subtlety. Other familiar faces include Joaquin Cosio, who also portrayed a coup conspirator in Quantum of Solace and Peter Capaldi, whose turn as 'The Thinker' looks and feels like Malcolm Tucker decided to end it all by running head first into a toyshop display of sonic screwdrivers.

I didn't hate it, but if I wanted to watch more than two hours of the undeniably weird doing the inexplicable, The Sparks Brothers is also in cinemas and its soundtrack is much better. That's even with this film opening with Johnny Cash live from Folsom. The Sparks Brothers also doesn't feel as male dominated.

The core of the film would appear to be a struggle between duty and pragmatism and freedom, given flesh by Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag, Idris Elba as Bloodsport, and John Cena as Peacemaker. They're all muscly military types, and a good joke is made of some of their parallels. It's telling though that in an end credits sequence one of them is just represented by a T-shirt. A fatal competition between Bloodsport and Peacemaker manages to find an inflection point between Legolas and Gimli and the antics of Predators various. That last sold further by Alice Braga appearing as a freedom fighter willing to accept quite a lot in the name of revenge. I'm also underselling the role played by Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior) in what I think is her English language feature debut. She does do quite a bit, but she's also a Ms.Guffin to the emotional journeys of Messrs. Sport, Maker, & Flag. Her backstory is also why the film's 15 includes a mention of "brief drug misuse".

That 15 has raised some eyebrows, but if anything it's a forgiving one. There's frequent strong language, the violence gets upgraded from "strong bloody" to "gore", and it deserves it. If this were to be printed they could probably have borrowed again from Frank Miller and done it in black and white and red, and in many places not in that order or proportion.

There's a wide variety of costumes, from the wholly computerised King Shark to the variously prostheticised Polka-Dot Man. David Dastmalchian doesn't get to do double duty as Calendar Man here, despite having found room in his schedule to voice the role before. This is not his first outing but it's a good one, undermined though by the flippant Freudianisms of his struggle. Bloodsport's got a cool skull helmet and Peacemaker's got a shiny one, the latter becoming important in a series of fights that suggest (among other things) that Joel Kinnaman might be able to earn some WWE Snabba Cash if he gets hard up. Peacemaker's costume and symbol have had a variety of iterations so this outfit having a dove in a pentagon is a little on the nose. It's not the only bird in the picture, though it being obscured by blood is not the only negative consequence for a coloured polygon. I'd reuse that polly gone for a blazing bit of animal cruelty but I think they were budgerigars.

There are some good sequences, some inventive framing, at least one moment with Chekhov's surviving roofline. There's also a glaring stretch where SFX could not keep pace with either collapse or actor. There are some quirks like a round of Fernet Branca, I won't rule out product placement but I don't think any of the squad is a San Franciscan bartender. Taika Waititi turns up and delivers a homily, and I honestly don't know if it's to fulfil some blood oath with a rodent or in order to qualify for a New Zealand tax credit.

It jumps back and forth in time, stealing in a way Miller didn't from The Spirit and having text created by elements on screen. There are too many characters, too many elements, too many requirements to service forthcoming HBO Max series, and possibly too many cooks. Of course it's entirely possible that as a white heterosexual man in his forties with an interest in comic books and movies and, when I'm lucky, disposable income, this film isn't for me, but damned if it doesn't feel like it was trying. I'm not really sure who else it's for.

It doesn't have the charm of Guardians Of The Galaxy, despite similarly rooting in obscurity for hidden gems. It isn't so much formulaic as without chemistry, and I'm not sure the cast can be faulted there. It's entertaining enough, but only just. Perhaps between commercial pressure and COVID odds of its success were always going to be difficult, but as with Black Widow, you'd hope for better odds than Russian roulette. One in six might be bad odds when a gun is to your head, but for the most recent crop of DC films it would seem to be better odds than putting a Gunn at the helm.

Reviewed on: 03 Aug 2021
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The Suicide Squad packshot
Supervillains Harley Quinn, Bloodsport, Peacemaker and a collection of nutty cons at Belle Reve prison join the super-secret, super-shady Task Force X as they are dropped off at the remote, enemy-infused island of Corto Maltese.

Director: James Gunn

Writer: James Gunn, based on the comic by John Ostrander

Starring: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Taika Waititi, David Dastmalchian, Alice Braga, Joel Kinnaman, Mikaela Hoover

Year: 2021

Runtime: 132 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Fantasia 2021

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