Good News and Bad News.
The Good News.
If you are, as I am, still skittish about returning to movie theaters during the current COVID-19 pandemic? You can still catch 2021’s reboot of “The Suicide Squad,” directed by James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) on HBOMax, without an extra access code, now through September 5th.
The Bad News.
Well… it’s “The Suicide Squad.”
At any rate, my wife and I broke out our digital projector and opened our 7 ft. (2 meter) wide collapsible screen to give our home theater viewing of writer/director James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad” a fair shot. The movie looked great. In our darkened room, it successfully simulated the theatrical experience. As for the movie’s quality? That’s another matter…
The “Suicide Squad”, as established in DC Comics and in the previous 2016 movie (which this movie very softly reboots) is essentially a mix between “The Dirty Dozen” combined with the Rated-R lingo (and super-abilities) of Marvel’s “Deadpool”; a collection of uniquely-skilled, hardcore inmates whose crimes range from eating people to sending Superman into the ICU with a Kryptonite bullet. Like the Dirty Dozen, this group is pulled from prison to take on deadly black-op missions, with explosives planted in their skulls should they deviate from their assignment.
The squad starts out rather large–at first; there’s the disgraced Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, of “For All Mankind”), bitter, would-be Superman assassin Bloodsport (Idris Elba); the ironically-named Peacemaker (John Cena); psychotic clown Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie); semi-aquatic ‘shark-god’ creature Nanaue (voice of Sylvester Stallone); rodent-controlling Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior); the psychotic, energy-wielding mutant Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian); detachable limbed guy, TDK (Nathan Fillion); a man-sized rodent named Weasel (Sean Gunn); spear-wielding Javelin (Flula Borg); Savant (Michael Rooker); the wily, untrustworthy Blackguard (SNL’s Pete Davison), and many others. Many of those extra team members (even some of the recognizable actors) won’t matter in a little while…
Note: The enormous size of the initial team is part of the grim joke; you’ll soon see unexpectedly high profile names, such as Nathan Fillion, Pete Davison and Jai Courtenay, get killed off with little more afterthought than a Star Trek redshirt. If brutal deaths-for-laughs is your thing? This may be your movie. Nathan Fillion also worked for director James Gunn in 2006’s “Slither,” as did Michael Rooker in that film, as well as “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014).
Arguably more evil than the inmates or their crimes is the mysterious woman who gathers the Squad for their mission; Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who will stop at nothing, including blatant threats to inmates’ families, to get her team of operatives together. With her band of murderous misfits, malcontents and mutants, Amanda gives a briefing. The small fictional South American island nation of Corto Maltese is in turmoil; rebels are threatening to overrun the US-backed dictatorship, which also has access to a secret weapons project called ‘Project Starfish,’ which they fear might fall into rebel hands. The squad’s mission is to keep the project from falling into rebel hands. Two teams of the squad will land at separate points on the island, lest one team is captured and/or killed…in other words, a suicide mission.
Note: Corto Maltese was first mentioned as a fictional country in the Batman Dark Knight comic books, as an island nation where Superman himself was involved in some shady political intrigue. It was also mentioned in 1989’s “Batman”, as the place where award-winning photojournalist Vicki Vale risked her own life to take photos of the country’s civil war for TIME magazine. Originally, Corto Maltese was the name of a fictional sailor in a comic book series dating back to 1967.
Things go predictably south when the teams are dropped from their transport choppers directly into the waters off the shore. Right away, the Blackbird sells out the team, stepping into rebel searchlights and surrendering before he and many others are quickly gunned down or slaughtered in some darkly hilarious acts of carnage. Harley Quinn is also captured as well…
Note: If there is one aspect of the film that almost makes it worth the time investment, it’s the black-as-pitch humor–it can be pervertedly funny, sometimes. I only wish the editing for some of the death scenes was a bit more rapid-fire at times, so that the beats wouldn’t be so mathematically predictable, but overall, the carnage is done with such over-the-top camp that it’s hard to suppress a grim chuckle.
The next day, the faction led by Bloodsport learns that Col. Flag has been captured by rebel leader Sol Soria (Alice Braga). Clumsily blustering their way into the rebel camp, they slaughter the guards…before they realize that the rebels were helping Col. Flag, not harming him. Once that deadly little ‘misunderstanding’ is cleared up, the remaining Suicide Squad arrange for transportation with the rebels deep into the capitol city, where they hope to find “the Thinker” (Peter Capaldi, of Doctor Who fame), the mad scientist (with current-conducting bolts surgically attached to his bald head) who helped spearhead Project Starfish for the corrupt Corto Maltese government.
Note: Though delivered with darkly comedic sledgehammering, the movie’s message about the dangers and consequences of US involvement in foreign civil wars is received, loud and clear.
Allying themselves with the rebel insurgents (their ‘enemy’ in this mission), the Suicide Squad get to know their rebel allies during the drive into the city, and even let their hair down for a few moments by ducking into a local club, where they are also looking for the Thinker. We learn that Bloodsport hates Ratcatcher’s rats while she tells her backstory of how she inherited her rat-wrangling tech from her late drug-addicted father (Taika Waititi), yada, yada, yada. During the evening, the Squad drinks (too much, perhaps) and let their guard down a little (too much as well). With the two-legged great white shark-god being too conspicuous to join them, Nanaue remains in the rebel ally’s van until their return; his face pressed against the glass, in a moment of near “Elephant Man” pathos. After some dancing, and nabbing the equally conspicuous Thinker, the Suicide Squad’s retreat is thwarted by government soldiers, who are doing a door-to-door search in the streets of the city for the Americans whom they suspect might be betraying them–and they would be right. It’s clear to some members of the Squad that they’ve been sent to back the wrong team. With their exit blocked off, Bloodsport, Peacemaker and the Colonel meekly surrender to help the rest of their team escape–knowing that their government ride will simply get them closer to their destination (the capitol), and that the mediocre security in the military transport will provide the three deadly assassins an easy opportunity to escape. Which they do, of course. Surprises are not this movie’s forte.
Note: The ‘getting to know you’ moments in the rebels’ van and in the club felt very artificial, as characters blurt out childhood traumas, and other bits of character development that don’t really help. Normally, I would applaud character growth in a superhero/action movie like this, but those moments rang a bit hollow here, for some reason; as if the moment was just killing time until the next action setup… which it is, essentially.
Meanwhile, Harley Quinn is on her own journey in the movie. Being inarguably the most popular character from the 2016 movie, she is afforded her own separate subplot in the film, which only converges with the rest of her team in the last forty minutes or so. She is detained by an ambitious, wealthy Corto Maltesean (so that’s how you say it) politico (Juan Diego Botto) who seeks to overthrow the current “el presidente” and become ruler himself. The only problem is that he’s not married, and his conservative country believes the leader should have a wife. He wines, dines and ultimately seduces the murderous, psychotic clown (her “Daddy’s Little Monster” tattoo was your first clue, Sherlock…), until she abruptly shoots him dead–just to skip to the last page, where she assumes the relationship will fall apart naturally. She is arrested, and tortured by electric prods (which she secretly seems to enjoy), until she’s left alone–with one distracted guard… well, you know the rest.
Note: Margot Robbie is one of the legacy actors from the first movie (as are costars Viola Davis and Joel Kinnaman), and her Harley Quinn is easily the most recognizable character of the lot (oy, if I had a nickel for every Harley Quinn cosplayer I’ve seen at conventions in the last four years…). Truth be told, Robbie’s performance is good, though I found her exaggerated Bronx accent a bit distracting–it’s a little too broad, even for this movie. So be it; that’s her choice. However, Harley Quinn’s protracted solo subplot in the movie feels as if writer/director James Gunn was giving his ‘star’ a separate spotlight from the ‘Squad’. I’m not sure if that’s to the movie’s benefit or detriment; either way, it feels as if she’s being given preferential treatment, when all of the cast do solid work–especially the dead-eyed John Cena as the terrifyingly single-minded “Peacemaker” and Daniela Melchoir’s “Ratcatcher” (easily the most sympathetic character of the movie).
The three captured Suicide Squad team members escape, and rendezvous with the rest of the team in the capitol, where–no surprise–they meet up with the self-liberated Harley after coming to ‘rescue her’ (she spots them in mid-attempt). After a series of break-ins, fights, and lots of carnage, they discover the secret labs of Project Starfish–the starfish name is accurate, as it was a monocular space alien that is shaped like a giant starfish, retrieved by a space shuttle crew by accident 30 years ago. The giant mother creature releases smaller versions of itself, which act as extensions rather than offspring, allowing the creature to control its hosts, who are reduced to animated corpses. Colonel Flag and Bloodsport also learn the full truth–that the United States government was behind the development and placation of this alien monster to use as a bioweapon; safely tucked far away in a Corto Maltese testing ground, where it wouldn’t harm any Americans (perhaps a metaphor for “harmless” US atomic bomb tests in the Bikini atolls). Retrieving a hard drive with the full story, Flag is challenged by Peacemaker–who is duty bound to keep the “peace”, even if it means murdering those who want full transparency and disclosure. The two fight to the death, with Peacemaker cold-bloodedly shanking his former ‘team member’ with no remorse. Stealing the hard drive for his own purposes, Bloodsport immobilizes Peacemaker with a single bullet to the heart, stopping the psychotic ‘patriot’ and ending their earlier question of who’s the better marksman. Eventually, the giant mother Starfish creature breaks out of captivity after the Suicide Squad prematurely detonates their explosives, which were meant to conceal US involvement in Project Starfish. Now the “project” is breaking loose and taking it to the streets…
Note: The colorful, monocular Starfish design is very similar to creatures featured in old Japanese keiju-eiga movies and TV series, specifically the single-eyed monsters of “Giant Robo” (1966), “Ultra Q” (also 1966) and its spinoff, “Ultraman” (1966 as well). There is a throwaway line where one of the technicians in the United States, who is monitoring the situation in Corto Maltese by satellite-link, screams that they’ve got a damn keiju on the loose (or words to that effect).
Attempts by the Corto Maltese military against the giant monster are useless, and it soon releases thousands of his face-hugging mini-starfish, which glom onto the soldiers’ faces, and even the corrupt general himself. The Squad instinctively cover their faces, preventing takeover by the creature. Soon, the stricken military members rise from unconsciousness, their parasitic starfish-faces speaking for the mother creature. Monitoring the situation, director Amanda Waller tells the team their objective is met; Project Starfish is now a Corto Maltese problem, and she orders them to retreat. The remaining Squad members, Bloodsport, Harley, Ratcatcher, Nanaue and Polka-Dot Man, decide to stay and defend the helpless islanders of Corto Maltese–who are now suffering as a direct result of this US-developed space monster/bio-weapon. They disobey the order to retreat, and rush into the streets in a Hail Mary attempt to stop the giant starfish from taking over the island nation. Waller is incensed, threatening the safety of Bloodsport’s daughter if he fails to comply. Fortunately, Waller’s deputy turns on her boss and knocks her unconscious–thwarting Waller’s efforts to detonate the explosives placed in the Squad’s skulls to assure their obedience.
Note: Given Waller’s team’s reluctance with their boss’s vicious methods, their ultimate betrayal of her was another one of the movie’s ‘seen it coming from a mile away’ moments. Once again, there are virtually no surprises to be had anywhere in this movie; the action, character deaths, and even the so-called ‘twists’ all seem to follow an almost paint-by-numbers pattern.
The remaining Squad realize they need to utilize each of their respective skills to take down the skyscraper-sized starfish. Nanaue tries unsuccessfully to eat it (“nom-nom”), Ratcatcher is marginally more successful with her army of rats, which at least do some measure of damage to the giant keiju, but fail to stop it. Polka Dot Man releases dozens of his energy-weapon polka dots (one of the oddest superpowers since Superman II’s cellophane Ss) against the creature, which in his crazed mind, appears as a giant version of his hateful mother (when it comes to mother-complexes, “Psycho”‘s Norman Bates has nothing on this guy…). Polka Dot Man is also freed from his tormenting psychosis when the starfish crushes him. The gargantuan starfish is briefly halted, but not stopped–and its army of mind-controlled civilians are also converging on the Squad. Bloodsport slaps together a large, bazooka-like gun and repeatedly (desperately) fires it into the creature. Once again, there is some damage, but nothing fatal. Harley realizes she is still armed with the spear that was given to her on the beach by the dying Squad member Javelin (whose Nordic accent left her smitten). She races up to the nearest building’s rooftop, jumps off the ledge, metallic spear in hand, and pierces the weapon (and herself) through the creature’s large, gelatinous eyeball…
Note: Once again, “star” Margot Robbie’s role is given a little extra room for heroics, since she was the clear fan favorite from the last movie. Ultimately, I think such preferential treatment makes her feel less a member of a team, and more of a prima donna (the character, not the actress–who is merely following Gunn’s script).
The eyeball is, of course, the creature’s sole vulnerable spot. It’s mind-control over the Corto Malteseans is released, as its thousands of parasites die off. Mission accomplished. Communications with their US base are reestablished, and Bloodsport renegotiates his terms; a full pardon for the remaining team members, or the hard drive containing the ugly truth of the US involvement in Project Starfish goes public. Not in a position to disagree, Waller relents. The Suicide Squad (what few remain) are heroes. Cue music…
Note: There are two coda sequences; before the main credits roll, we see the revival of the presumed dead “Weasel” character (who drowned just shy of the Corto Maltesian shoreline during the initial invasion), and a final post-credits coda where we see the sociopathic “Peacemaker” is alive but comatose, in a government hospital, where director Waller has future plans for the dangerous brute…
Summing It Up.
This soft-reboot/sequel to the 2016 film is, from my wife’s observation, a marginal improvement over its 2016 predecessor (which I didn’t see), and retains a few of the same cast members (Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Joel Kinneman, etc). While I can’t heartily recommend “The Suicide Squad,” I also recognize that perhaps I’m just “too old for this s#!t,” and have seen other, better movies very similar in tone (Paul Verhoeven’s dark-humored action repertoire–Robocop, Totall Recall, etc– come to mind). Speaking (writing) only for myself, 2021’s “Suicide Squad” is not my personal cuppa Joe, or shot of tequila, but to each their own.
About 20 minutes too long, and littered with clockwork-predictable action beats and character demises, the film offers few actual surprises–save for the occasionally hilarious over-the-top carnage, which is delivered with a certain “Zombieland”-style glee. The plodding attempts at character development in the middle act feel more like filler than anything too sincere. If I’d risked my health to see this movie in a theatre right now? I’d feel a mite ripped off. “Suicide Squad” was barely worth 2 hours and 12 minutes of my life, let alone anything greater than that. However, the movie’s gallows humor helps a bit. Perhaps worth watching if you can do so with minimal investment and/or risk, or if you enjoyed the first film.
Safe Viewing Options.
You can still see the movie without a separate pass code on HBOMax through September 5th, or you can, of course, still see it in theaters (with a mask, and whatever other COVID-safety protocols/ordinances of your local theater). Remember, COVID-19 (and its Delta variant) have already killed over 4.5 million people worldwide (over 635,000 in the US alone), so please wear a mask, and get vaccinated as soon as possible.