Monday, May 27, 2024

‘The Suicide Squad’ Goes For Broke

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Before we get too far along, I must confess that I am a sucker for Idris Elba. I just think he’s cool, and I like watching him. The man can play anything but is so rarely given the choice roles he deserves. I need you to understand this because when I tell you that I freaking loved The Suicide Squad, you’ll think it’s because of my all-encompassing fascination with Elba.

It is not.

James Gunn’s latest foray into the superhero world is violent, inventive, and weird in a gonzo fashion that many of these movies are not usually allowed to be. Granted, underneath, much of Gunn’s bluster and vulgarity beats the heart of conventional superhero movies, but even here, it excels. For one thing, people die, and they die horrible bloody deaths, often with little to no sympathy from the camera.

The Suicide Squad is either sequel or a reboot; it doesn’t matter that much either way. The movie starts full steam ahead and never really slows down. Gunn, who also wrote the script, keeps us on our toes as he pulls rabbits out of one hat after another while also taking time to get inside his characters’ heads, often quite literally.

Part of the hallmark of Gunn’s style is the beating heart that lies just underneath his bawdy and off-putting surface. Yes, The Suicide Squad is rated “R,” and like the Deadpool movies and Logan, it is filled with graphic humor and off-the-wall violence. But also, like its cinematic cousins, it has a warmth to it. The difference is that Gunn’s warmth is maybe a little schmaltzy, but it somehow makes the heartfelt stuff packs a more ruthless wallop.

Not to mention Gunn cuts through all the exposition red tape as he both explains what the Suicide Squad is and introducing us to new characters. The new Squad is another motley crew of killers, misfits, and Harley Quinn. Now DuBois aka Bloodsport (Elba) is in charge. The new Squad is made up of Christopher Smith, Peacemaker (John Cena), Cleo Cazo, Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior), and Abner Krill, the Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who can shoot toxic interdimensional polka dots. 

Viola Davis returns as Amanda Waller; only Gunn allows her to retain an even harder edge. Waller is a tricky character, a cold-hearted cynic; she is a true believer. She will burn the world to a cinder if it’s for the right cause. We’re meant to hate her, to distrust her, to be horrified and disgusted. Davis makes Amanda Waller all of those things and does so without breaking a sweat.

Then, of course, there’s Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. She stole the show in the last Suicide Squad, but she is a star player with Gunn at the helm. She’s not the best thing about the movie; she’s one of a hundred best things about the film.

Oh, and there’s also Nanue, a half-man half-shark creature voiced by Sylvester Stallone. Stallone plays Nanue like a man-eating Himbo. If there is a weakness in the film, Nanue, while funny and lovable, often feels like an afterthought.

But back to Elba. Elba, who has long been a movie star, is finally given a role equal to Stacker Pentecost. His Bloodsport is a man fueled by anger both at the world and himself. A type of man who goes around boasting that he has no good left in him. Which if you’ve ever seen a movie before, you know that old rigamarole. There’s usually just enough good left to power him through his character arc.

Gunn isn’t afraid to let his characters be unlikeable. Elba’s DuBois can be cruel, especially if he’s talking to his daughter Tyla (Storm Reid). However, Peacemaker can be even barbarous. The two often bring out the worst in each other, small wonder since they are remarkably similar both in the powers they have and in their moody disposition.

Yet, what makes The Suicide Squad so unique is all the little things stuffed into the cracks of the dazzling blockbuster. For example, at first, the similarities between Peacemaker and Bloodsport seem like a gag on the part of Gunn. But as the movie goes on, we begin to see the differences that set them apart. For example, Peacemaker claims to fight for the defense of liberty. 

However, Bloodsport knows this is merely a ruse. “You know what I think? I think ‘liberty’ is just your excuse to do whatever you want. Whether that’s to eat a beach full of d*cks or killn’ folk.” Gunn follows through this throughline as we discover Bloodsport and Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) served together in the military. 

While never an active part of the movie, DuBois and Flag’s relationship runs underneath the film. Kinnaman’s Flag is almost naive, like Waller, a believer in the idea of America. In that way, he has a lot in common with Smith. But DuBois, also a Black man, holds no such illusions. What bonds Flag and DuBois together is their history.

In reality, DuBois is drawn to Cleo. A young woman who can control rats and a petty thief who reminds DuBois not a little bit of his daughter. Gunn cleverly smuggles in themes of race and class without hardly calling any attention to it. The rift between Smith and Flag and DuBois grows wider and wider as the movie goes on because it soon becomes apparent that once again, soldiers are being used as pawns and clean-up men by an ambivalent American government.

The squad battles dictators and rescues a giant starfish, Starro, kidnapped from space by American astronauts. Then they fight Starro. Peter Capaldi plays a mad scientist Dr. Gaius Graves, who experiments on the monstrous starfish and the people of Corto Maltese. But, unlike the Suicide Squad, he knows exactly who he is and what he is doing.

As fun and kooky as all that other stuff is, I was busy being wowed by all the performances and little ways Gunn found to find mockery and empathy, sometimes in the exact moment. Much like his other works, abuse and trauma play a part in both the heroes and villains. However, this being a Suicide Squad movie, who is the villain and who is the hero is not as cut and dry as most superhero movies.

I cried, as I usually do in Gunn’s superhero movies. Whatever issue I may have with his films, I always find my way to being inexorably moved by how much he cares and loves his prickly fractured characters. Perhaps more than any other director working in the genre, he allows his audience to not only love his characters but pity them. Take Starro, for example, who wishes to conquer all he sees, but who was happiest among the stars. Gunn gives this massive CGI creature a brief moment of pity, dare I say it – a soul. But he does so while making sure his compassion is not mixed with absolution.

Gunn lets Henry Braham’s camera fly throughout The Suicide Squad free of gravity and narrative contrivance. Moreover, Braham’s camera shows us the dreams and horrors slumbering deep inside the character’s head. But he also finds ways of transitioning from one scene to the next, at times making it feel as if we are turning a page in a comic book. 

Braham’s and Gunn’s framing leaves no scene dull or traditional. Flowers bloom around Harley as she guns down her captors, her bullets turning into petals. Cleo pours her heart out to DuBois about her father, her memories appearing on the dirty bus window muddied and heartbreaking. Every frame is vivid and pulsating with life. The Suicide Squad is a visually stunning entry in the superhero genre.

The only real flaw is that the action feels a little rote at times. Conversely, there are exceptions, such as Harley Quinn’s fight in the hallway. The scene recalls her gorgeous ballet-style sequence from Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey. Gunn’s is not nearly as stylistic, preferring a smaller scale and brutal tone for the action. This is not to say there are over-the-top grandiose set pieces; Gunn seems more comfortable with the action when it is up close and personal than he is with, say, a car chase.

Gunn loves to pad his soundtrack from end to end with classic rock n’ roll, and The Suicide Squad is no exception. Stylistically it fits, and there’s a sort of ‘dem bums-like-bravado in some of his song choices. Still, by the end, I found myself almost numb, but I can’t help but admire the man for his commitment to his schtick.

The Suicide Squad is yet another example of the possibilities the genre so rarely even tries to reach for. But, beyond that, Gunn has made a movie for himself. Unlike so many films of the genre, the fans are welcome to come along for the ride, but if they can’t catch up or don’t jive with his style, they can hang back daddy-o. I admire that about the movie, and it’s more than a little of why I loved it so much.

That and Idris Elba. 

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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