Empathetic and gory, ‘The Suicide Squad’ gambles on love and wins

Entertainment

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 02: John Cena attends the Warner Bros. premiere of “The Suicide Squad” at Regency Village Theatre on August 02, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

HIGH POINT, N.C. (WGHP) — When James Gunn was hired to make the new “Suicide Squad” movie, many people thought that it may just turn into a third “Guardians of the Galaxy”.

The R-rated supervillain romp, however, shares more commonality with James Gunn’s earlier work, particularly the cult-favorite horror film, “Slither” (a personal favorite of this writer), and is probably DC’s best live-action cinematic offering so far, capitalizing on the momentum of quality that’s been building since the release of “Shazam!” and the cast announcement for the upcoming “Batman” flick. Embracing the quirky characters of the DC universe, rather than attempting to ground the movies, is quickly differentiating these films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a big way, and pulling away from the desaturated days of Nolan and Snyder.

“The Suicide Squad” strikes a careful balance between derision and sympathy. There is a certain malicious glee with which characters are dispatched, especially in the first half of the movie, but the characters who die quickly do at least get a few moments to be human enough that while you might chuckle, it might also wring a sympathetic ‘aww’ out of you too.

Marvel treated their first few phases more like a house of cards; a lack of knowledge of any specific movie might topple the whole thing for a viewer. It demands completion. It seems that DC is now approaching its cinematic universe with more of an anthology touch; unrelated stories that overlap in characters and universe but don’t lead directly into one another.

As such, you don’t need to see “Suicide Squad” to enjoy this movie; it is loosely a sequel, but with the exception of a few recurring characters, it doesn’t pull any essential plot points from the first.

Similarly, you won’t lose anything plot-wise by skipping “Birds of Prey” but it does fill in some emotional gaps for the story of Harley Quinn. Skipping “Birds of Prey” might leave a viewer a little lost on how Harley cut loose from “Mr. J” and developed such a strong sense of self (and desire to murder disappointing potential romantic partners).

Helpfully, Viola Davis explains the premise in her opening scene: the prisoners complete black ops style tasks to get time off their sentence, and if they go rogue she blows their heads off.

Viola Davis is, as she always is, a standout as the warden of Belle Reve penitentiary. Amanda Waller has nothing redemptive about her, and that makes her thrilling to watch as she tugs on the strings of her team from the safety of a control room.

In another story, Amanda Waller would be a good guy; a wall — pun intended — between the world and the supervillains that are contained within her prison. A lesser performer might be too conscious of that; might try to pull punches or soften line-reads. Viola Davis understands who Amanda Waller is, and Amanda Waller is terrifying.

While Waller provides the tension as a looming presence who has our protagonists’ lives in her hands, planning for every contingency, the heart and soul of the film belong to Ratcatcher 2.

Daniela Melchior plays Ratcatcher 2 with such deeply held humor and heart that she and ever-present sidekick Sebastian (a rat expertly played by two rats; Jaws and Crisp Ratt) quickly becomes the center of the team. Cleo Cazo was homeless on the streets of Portugal due to her father’s struggles with addiction. This is not treated as a joke nor is it treated as a moral failing of Ratcatcher 1, but simply a fact of his life that had permanent ripples into the life of his daughter.

Much like “Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2”, James Gunn meditates on fatherhood and family with a deft nuance; Idris Elba’s Bloodsport is a terrible father to his biological daughter but his relationship with Ratcatcher 2 shows that he can fix things and that it isn’t too late — if he can survive. Ratcatcher 2’s father’s death has left a hole in her heart, it’s clear, that Bloodsport begins to fill, creating a small family unit within the chaos.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 02: John Cena attends the Warner Bros. premiere of “The Suicide Squad” at Regency Village Theatre on August 02, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Bloodsport and Ratcatcher 2 hold the emotional center of the film firmly between them, but no character falls flat once the core team comes together.

John Cena is a gift as Peacemaker, who joins the ranks of “The Boys”‘ Homelander in “what if a character symbolizing America was bad, actually?” satires that actually work.

Stallone’s sweet but a little spacy King Shark simply wants to be included but understands (eventually) that no, a fake mustache is not an adequate disguise for a shark man. His love of his friends is both a funny throughline and at times a heartwrenching one when there are situations in which he simply has to be excluded.

Polka Dot Man will probably rank just behind Ratcatcher 2 as the character who evokes the most sympathy for the audience; James Gunn turns a character who is absolutely a joke villain in the comics into someone who you actively root for with a side of “Slither”-esque disgustingness. A man tortured by his own mother in hopes of creating a superhero, Polka Dot Man retains some of the absurdity of his comic counterpart with a whole helping of likability, provided by David Dastmalchian’s Eeyore-ish performance.

Every person in this movie wants something: friends, family, peace, to do the right thing or simply to find a way to be left alone. The movie’s quality comes in how deeply you feel for them as they struggle against the strings pulling them every which way until they find it.

The soul of the movie is delivered in a truly beautiful moment towards the end, in a line that I won’t spoil in this review.

It is a movie that pairs its gleeful, maniacal gore with a beating heart of hopefulness and love. Even Starro the Destroyer, an interstellar starfish who turns people into zombies, is not simply a force of evil bent on destruction but a creature that manages to evoke sympathy, because really the villain of the film is the system that uses inmates as cannon-fodder with no regard for their lives.

“The Suicide Squad” is all killer, no filler. Everyone is having fun and everyone understands the movie they’re making is both a big, loud action romp and a charming piece about how friendship and love will win, eventually (with the help of lots and lots of rats).

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