The Suicide Squad, review: a riotous reboot that has the original film for breakfast

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in The Suicide Squad
Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in The Suicide Squad
  • 15 cert, 132 min. Dir: James Gunn

If at first you don’t succeed, reboot, reboot, reboot. In 2016, the superhero movie sunk to a new and soul-crushingly desolate nadir in Suicide Squad, a smirking adaptation of a niche DC series about a black ops unit crewed by minor villains. David Ayer’s film was one of those bizarre anomalies of the modern blockbuster age: an enormous commercial hit that no one seemed to like. And, to be clear, not just critics – in the UK, its second weekend’s box-office takings were barely a third of the first’s, which suggests the word-of-mouth fell some way short of rhapsodic.

Was the world clamouring for a sequel or not? It was impossible to tell. So with a certain mercenary glint, Warner Bros has simply made a completely different first film, with just enough nods to their prior attempt to appease franchise die-hards.

The Suicide Squad (note the definite article) is such a drastic improvement in every respect that you almost – almost – feel sorry for the earlier version: it’s dazzlingly colourful and riotously crass, but also emotionally alive. The secret ingredient is writer-director James Gunn, who was hurriedly drafted by Warner Bros during his temporary exile from Marvel in 2018, over some tasteless jokes tweeted years beforehand.

It was Gunn who found a way to turn the previously little-known Guardians of the Galaxy into one of the crown jewels of the Marvel franchise, and he works a similar magic here, making characters who are daft and disposable by nature into the kind of anti-heroes you end up rooting for against your better judgement.

One, David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man, assails his enemies with explosive tiddlywinks, and sees the face of his mother everywhere, as if trapped inside an Aphex Twin video. Another, King Shark, is a bipedal great white in Bermuda shorts, who refers to humans as “num-nums” in the gravelly voice of Sylvester Stallone. Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior) commands an army of vermin with a glowing wand: it’s the family trade, taken on from her late father Ratcatcher I (Taika Waititi, glimpsed in flashback). Then there’s John Cena’s Peacemaker, a nihilistic Captain America spoof who declares: “I cherish peace with all my heart, and I don’t care how many men, women and children I have to kill to get it.”

The reluctant leader of the troupe is a has-been assassin called Bloodsport (Idris Elba), who was once famous for wounding Superman with a Kryptonite bullet, but now spends his days scraping chewing gum off prison floors. The whole bunch are cartoons to varying degrees, but each cast member finds a note of truth in their character and hits it unerringly.

Cena is hair-raisingly plausible as the blinkered patriot, Dastmalchian exudes an almost Lynchian, despair-laced weirdness, and Elba is tremendous, bringing a Lee Marvin-like battered gravitas to the role of squad leader: it’s his best performance since Beasts of No Nation in 2015. The ruthless taskmaster back at mission control is played by Viola Davis, one of a handful of returning players. Another is Margot Robbie, whose casting as the screwball action diva Harley Quinn was perhaps the one thing the last film got right.

The Suicide Squad - Warners
The Suicide Squad - Warners

Their mission is a Kelly’s Heroes-like sortie behind enemy lines: there’s a South American dictatorship that needs overthrowing, but not by anyone formally linked to the US government. Following a chaotic beach landing in which F-bombs and bomb-bombs are lobbed around in equal abundance, Gunn smartly contrives a reason for Robbie’s Harley to be separated from the rest of the group, allowing the other members to establish themselves without being upstaged by the already familiar star turn. She’s far from sidelined, though, and in fact gets one of the film’s best action scenes to herself: a bloodthirsty corridor brawl that pays homage to Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and unfolds to Louis Prima’s Just a Gigolo, while hallucinatory animated critters prance through the carnage.

The film works as well as it does at least in part because Gunn and his collaborators don’t seem overly concerned with justifying any of it. Will the audience accept a battle with a Godzilla-sized starfish? Who cares? Let’s call him Starro the Conqueror and give him a mad scientist keeper played by Peter Capaldi. In a genre hooked on formula, moments such as these make The Suicide Squad feel like a gust of nitrous oxide-laced fresh air.

In cinemas from Friday July 30