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“The Suicide Squad” shifts superhero movies into a hilarious, gory and exceedingly bonkers new direction but writer/director James Gunn still makes time to show one goofy supervillain making sure another’s buckled up for a plane ride headed for certain doom. “Now you’re safe,” says the helpful not-so-baddie.
Oh, if only.
The body count is high and chaos reigns in Gunn’s absurdly delightful and indubitably not-for-kids “Squad” (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters and on HBO Max on Aug. 6), which embraces a superhero vibe (even chock-full of morally questionable rogues hoping the government doesn’t blow their heads off) and adds elements of workplace comedy, gritty war movie, dysfunctional family drama and kaiju disaster flick.
'The Suicide Squad': Bloodsport, Peacemaker debut in James Gunn's R-rated trailer
Armed with A-list stars – and one ginormous starfish – Gunn doesn’t quite outdo the heights of his first “Guardians of the Galaxy” film but definitely continues his knack for taking obscure comic book characters and creating extraordinary misfits with issues. Plus there’s a lot of heart and emotion woven through all the unpredictable deaths and rampant four-letter words that really give this strange picture life.
The new film kinda/sorta/not really continues from and definitely improves on David Ayer’s critically pummeled 2016 “Squad” (well, some of us liked it at least). Perennial hard case Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is back running survive-or-else missions out of outlaw-filled Belle Reve prison with members of Task Force X, including returnees Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and fan-favorite nutball Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Their newest assignment is venturing to the fictional South American island of Corto Maltese, where the Squad traverses jungles, fights enemy guerrillas, goes disco dancing at a nightclub (no, really) and has to infiltrate an old Nazi stronghold from World War II that’s been housing a monstrous experiment for decades.
A colorful crew of rookies gives “Squad” 2.0 a host of winning personalities. Played with heroic grumpiness by a superb Idris Elba, Bloodsport is in the pokey for putting Superman in the ICU (thanks to a Kryptonite bullet) and personal stakes put him on the front lines, where the heavily armed warrior fosters a healthy rivalry with Peacemaker (John Cena), a jerky and extremely grating patriotic type who kills in the name of liberty and is a hyper-muscular gem of a man you love to hate.
Those who adore Rocket Raccoon and Groot from Gunn’s “Guardians” will get a kick out of Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a nap-happy young woman who can control rats, and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who has a death wish as well as an inter-dimensional virus that spawns destructive polka dots. Sylvester Stallone also voices the man-eating, scene-stealing King Shark and it’s pretty much as awesome as it sounds.
Gunn juggles a massive cast including Pete Davidson (as Blackguard), Peter Capaldi (The Thinker), Michael Rooker (Savant) and Nathan Fillion (TDK), though impressively finds moments for each of them to shine. Robbie especially benefits from Gunn’s go-for-broke style: Her Harley is now three movies deep into the DC movie universe (after the original “Squad” and last year’s girl-gang extravaganza “Birds of Prey”) but she comes into her own as less of a comic book persona and more as a flesh-and-blood woman with an unhealthy violent streak and a healthy libido.
Gunn’s first “Guardians” was where Marvel proved it could make a big swing pay off with obscure characters. In a way, "The Suicide Squad" is the anti-Marvel movie: Yes, it lays the groundwork for other projects but one never knows if a favorite character's going to have a crashing helicopter land on them. You don't see this many people die in a "John Wick" installment, much less a superhero film.
So it seems lightning has struck again, this time in the DC universe where the most successful movies thus far have played it safe. That’s never been Gunn’s game, thankfully, and certainly isn’t here. Anyway, who needs Batman around when you’ve got Starro the Conqueror?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Suicide Squad' review: James Gunn blows up the superhero movie