The Ugly Purity of 'The Suicide Squad'

The Ugly Purity of 'The Suicide Squad'

“Do you want a dozen angry rodents crawling up your ass?”
“My answer might not be what you expect!”

Thank goodness for the brutish, maximalist, shitbag silliness of The Suicide Squad, which is a bit overstuffed, exhausting in its commitment to every single one of its too-many bits, and emotionally overconcieved — but wise enough, nevertheless, to be stupid where it counts. Because it’s at its most unhinged and silly, with all pretenses to character complexity abandoned and the entire pot of spaghetti strands sticking to the wall, that this movie veers closest to really doing something. The Suicide Squad’s predecessor, 2016’s Suicide Squad — no The — was (for the most part) just stupid. That’s plausibly because of the story that’s since emerged as the mythology of that movie: Storied Warner Bros. interventions that enforced a late-stage post-production pivot into banal, conflicted lifelessness, resulting in a movie that had unmistakably been “ripped to pieces,” as director David Ayer has since put it.

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But I don’t know. Suicide Squad didn’t totally inspire confidence in the idea of some far superior cut still hanging out on a hard drive somewhere, tragically shred to bits and pieces of sparkling brilliance that are just waiting for some visionary to assemble them into something more joyfully chaotic and narratively coherent or, even better, proudly, knowingly incoherent. Nor does Jared Leto’s eyebrow-raising claim — that he shot enough material, as that film’s Halloween pimp Joker, to fill an entire movie — exactly spark joy, even as it intrigues to this day. Leto was right about one thing, though — something James Gunn’s new movie honors with braindead bombast. “If a film was ever going to be rated R,” said Leto, “it should be the one about the villains.” Yeah — duh. The 2016 Suicide Squad was rated PG-13, a red flag if ever there were one. One criticism lobbed its way — that it was “ugly trash” — would, in the best of cases, have been an honorific. Were it uglier, trashier, there’d be more about it worth remembering and revelling in, five years after the fact, than the one great moment of Viola Davis cutting into a steak with enough vicious relish to tempt a vegan to butcher a cow as soon as they left the theater. Alas. 

What must be said in favor of James Gunn’s stand-alone sequel — which is now in theaters and will be streaming on HBO Max for 31 days, per Warner Bros’ pandemic-panicked release strategy this year — is that it earns its R rating. The violence is, in a word, excessive. When a heart gets stabbed, we get an interior shot of the heart, sliced open, struggling to beat. When a body gets ripped apart by a sentient shark-god, the frame rate is dialed down just enough for the cringing details of the individual organs, now mid-air and in fatal disarray, to be plainly visible. And a bolt of lightning flashes for no other reason than because comic book chaos is — should more often be — surreal. 

All of this befits the grime-splashed, blood-splattered grindhouse cosplay Gunn largely seems to be going for in this movie: all gore and guts and shameless kill shots, with the labor of apologies duly spared (for the most part). And it fits what reemerges as the premise of this franchise, which is unwaveringly dark, if you think about it, and even if you don’t — a premise copped, as is oft noted, from the 1967 classic The Dirty Dozen, about the Army’s worst prisoners being sent on a hopeless D-Day mission, because the survival of prisoners is, to so many, irrelevant. The title, if not the premise, of a John Ford movie also comes to mind: They Were Expendable. Real-life correlates to the Suicide Squad could plausibly be the inmates conscripted into fighting California’s wildfires for slave wages. The Suicide Squad, at least, get something of a sweet deal: 10 years knocked off of their sentences at Belle Reve penitentiary (which, we learn, touts “the highest mortality rate in the entire U.S. prison system”) — a somewhat vexing arrangement given their respective body counts and this realer-than-fiction’s system’s adamant lack of interest in anything like rehabilitation. 

But that’s the point. And of course strings come attached, in the form of an impossible mission that encompasses everything from the fall-out of a South American coup and its relevance to U.S. political interests, to a Nazi-era fortress called Jötunheim, which is overloaded with twined histories of the “disappeared” political prisoners familiar to the history of dictatorship as well as micro-history of Nazi experimentation. Last, but hardly least, is the leash around each member of the squad’s necks, in the form of a brain-chip detonator that will be set to explode should anyone try to veer off-mission. Because America’s political interests, the premise tells us, are worth all of the above. Which, once we get a sense of what’s going on in that fortress — once we realize how literally we should take the codename “Project Starfish” — turns out to be somewhat true. And, when its freak flag is finally allowed to fly, deliriously, hilariously kooky.

The Suicide Squad stars … a lot of people. But the main squad is helmed, in terms of interest and importance, by Harley Quinn (a returning Margot Robbie, steadfastly committed to being the Judy Holliday of the DCEU, accent and all) and legendary assassin Bloodsport (a sparklingly Movie Star Charismatic Idris Elba). And with them come the ironically-named Peacemaker (John Cena, perfectly cast), who’s like a Captain America whose thirst for war atrocity has not yet been airbrushed out of the picture; a truck-sized hammerhead named King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone); Ratchcatcher, veritable queen of the rat kingdom (Cleo Cazo) and BFF of a rat named Sebastian, who’s active enough to be a standalone member of the squad; and … Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a notoriously “bad” (embarrassing) villain whose name speaks for itself, but who gets a bit of crassly sentimental image redemption in Gunn’s hands, largely for the better. Joel Kinnaman plays Col. Rick Flag, who plays chaperone to this group of misfits, the eyes and ears on the ground for Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), director of the A.R.G.U.S. program, whose main business seems to be sending these motley crews of degenerates into worst-case-scenario OPs. The Suicide Squad’s official name is Task Force X; the name “Suicide Squad,” Flag says, is “a little degrading” — as if the missions aren’t. 

The available info about the movie promises appearances from comedian Pete Davidson, Jai Courtney, and the fantastic Michael Rooker, among others, plus A Wrinkle in Time’s Storm Reid, and Taika Waititi — but the less revealed there, the better. What matters more, even, than the actual plot is what Gunn and co. try to do with it, which is, in a word, everything: a flush of styles, tone, genre (war, zombies with a side of Alien face-sucking, superheroes of course), and skewed, ironic references to classic war movies in particular — I see you over there Private Ryan, and also you, Apocalypse Now. Films like Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia also get explicit, perhaps overdone, shout-outs. 

But the meat of The Suicide Squad, the appeal, isn’t quite in its heavy hand with pastiche, which is only really effective when the references become a chance to sweep the rug out from under the feet of the glorified, Rambo-style military violence that dominates war movies. It doesn’t exactly amount to critique — the movie revels in its own giddy realms of shameless violence, with far less irony, too much to stand on firm moral footing in that regard. But, sure, call it what it is. A village invasion a la Apocalypse (or, really, actual U.S. military strategy) swiftly, grotesquely descends into a dick-measuring contest, culminating in a punchline that ultimately lacks for punch 

The thread of the story starts with a coup on the isle of Corto Maltese, a nice little find from the annals of DC comics lore, which, after a military coup, has fallen under the rule of the most charming dictator ever, Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto), and Major General Mateo Suárez (Joaquín Cosío) — neither of whom is hospitable to U.S. political interests. Therefore… What’s scary and Amanda Waller and the people she has to answer to isn’t so much the lack of political liberty that now rules this island off the coast of South America, but rather, the superpower hiding out in the old Nazi laboratory on that island. 

That, at least, is the cover story for the mission. But Gunn, who directed both Guardians of the Galaxy movies, is driven by impulses more human than war-mongering. Across the entirety of this franchise fare, Gunn has displayed a real, sometimes cloying, sympathy for outcasts — and who better than a guy who basically has to vomit nuclear polka dots twice a day lest they crowd his body, in the form of grotesque, transmogrifying neon tumors all over his body. The transformation bluntly recall’s David Lynch’s unerringly sympathetic The Elephant Man — which should tell you something about Gunn’s regard for the character and his ailment. 

And not just for this character. The entire Suicide Squad set-up is a useful framework because, being that these are missions that result in high casualties by design, a filmmaker basically has the pick of the litter, when it comes to assembling the squad. Gunn’s choice of characters is of a piece with his worldview, which, if we were to summarize it over-simply, is this: Hurt people hurt people. I can’t imagine many people were begging to see Polka Dot Man revived from the coffers and thrown into a major superhero movie; comic history had discarded him. Ratcatcher, meanwhile, is too-frequently a punching bag for lite anti-millennial humor that never really gets funny — but her purpose, here, is to remind us of the power of the rodents she calls her friends. Loathed, feared, preferably out of sight and out of mind — this, Gunn’s movie argues, the true social underclass, the real populace running every one of the movie’s environs, be it jungle or city proper. Even the ultimate villain of the film, the secret being hidden away in Jötunheim, closes out with a pained bit of pathos to the tune of: I didn’t ask to be here, man; I was happy out in space, doing my own thing. 

A tribute to Gunn’s touch, if ever. Narratively, it comes with a downside, a flair for indulgence that pushes the movie beyond the joy of its grindhouse nihilism into something more like a heavy meal, the kind that’s only fun until the gassy buildup starts feeling like a knife to the gut. True, grindhouse is all the more fun for its on-the-fly scarcity, the lack of apology for its lack of resources or heavy-handed ideas. It’s violence that pushes towards clarifying, go-for-broke, spontaneous, ugly purity. The genre’s often smarter for that, in fact. 

Gunn, by contrast, is quicker to angle for a purity that feels explicitly moral, overtly sympathetic to the point of sanding down the real shards that The Suicide Squad makes fully available. Where other superhero movies of the moment are marred by the redundancy of the origin story framework, Gunn’s alternative — giving every villain a psychological apparatus that explains their villainy — gets a little old, weighs a little too heavily. It sparks detours that don’t always pan out, narrative trickery that’d feel trickier, funnier, were it lighter on its feet and less keen to show off. Worst of all, Gunn’s impulses wind up crowding out some of the more interesting, sometimes more urgent, avenues that the movie insists on calling to mind. The movie’s engagement with dictator violence is strange on its own terms. But when an entire squad of rebel allies gets wiped out, their leader Sol Soria (Alice Braga), takes it on the chin a little too easily. Sure, she gets to say out loud that she knows she’s making a deal with the devil (America) — but the resolution feels like a missed opportunity. And the argument is better-made elsewhere, in the first place, by John Cena’s pitch-perfect performance, in his tighty-whities and superhero figurine getup and willingness to be violent at any cost for America’s sake. The character works because he’s the embodiment of a recognizable idea. And it helps that the movie wisely denies him a backstory.

But this is Gunn. A guy can’t just be afraid of rats; there’s got to be a reason, and childhood trauma — a too-frequent fallback in Gunn’s movies — is the reason. A touching little monologue about a destitute childhood with a drug-addicting genius of a father winds up becoming an visual experiment in clashing tones — the poignant alongside the ridiculous — that Gunn’s not quite as adept at as he is at the edgelord fanaticism of the movie’s finer moments. Among those moments: a little justice for Harley Quinn, Our Lady the Promising Young Psychopath, who’s first treated to an unexpected bit of romance that, per usual for Quinn, doesn’t pan out — and then gets a subplot that verges uncomfortably close to what we’ve come to expect for this character: torture, then comeuppance. 

Even if you’re used to watching Harley’s fate play out as it so often does, the torture, by way of cattle prod, is hard to watch, exaggerated solely to make what follows — her necessary rampage — feel properly commensurate, given what inspired it. But the rampage itself is nearly dazzling. Midway through, the machine-gunning, impaling, and ass-kicking gets a kick of psychological dissociation that verges on an LSD trip: a fight scene in which, suddenly, every jab, every kick, bursts into flowers. It’s out-there — but because it requires very little in the way of excuse or explanation, this is where Gunn proves what he’s made of. Ditto to “Project Starfish,” once fully revealed, which got a laugh out of me, a bit of goofy Kaiju city-destruction that at its heights has less in common with, say, the recent strain of Godzilla movies, than with the awkwardly mega-sized Pillsbury Doughboy from Ghostbusters, all big-eyed, awkward limbs and dumb dialogue. Even this sequence — a joy that caps off a long stretch of redundant action — ends with a bedazzled Harley, at peace in her weirdness. The movie is too much, too long, but not lacking in its glories. To find them, follow Harley. She’s leading the way.

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