Review: The Suicide Squad (Theaters and HBO Max)
James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad might not be a good movie, but it makes up for it by being a lot of movie.
One could fuss about the in media res misdirection of a start or the slapdash manner of the character development or the regurgitated backstories or the unearned grab at political respectability by feinting at a thoughtful geopolitical take in the most basic way imaginable. But this all feels a little bit beside the point.
Because The Suicide Squad is, truly, sui generis. It’s a high-eight-figure or low-nine-figure comic book movie with a hard-R rating brought to life by a guy who got his start with the delinquent sensibilities exhibited by the masters of adult-yet-juvenile ephemera at Troma Entertainment. We’ve never seen anything quite like it. And as one might expect from a graduate of the House That the Toxic Avenger built, you’ll see things you’ll never forget. A humanoid shark ripping a man in half. An entire island of rats condensed into a single city block, a veritable tsunami of fur and teeth. A man who sees no one but his mother in the faces of everyone around him being subjected to bouts of explosive polka dot diarrhea.
Okay, weirdly, that last bit—the polka dot diarrhea—is left to the imagination, more or less. Point being: I don’t know how much about story structure Gunn learned from Lloyd Kaufman, Troma’s schlockmeister, but one thing we can be sure he learned is that it’s very, very cool to see guts splattered on a camera lens.
And oh my, are guts spilled. In the opening moments, as a team of criminals freed from prison by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), storms a beach on the fictional island of Corto Maltes, a man is chopped to bits by a crashed chopper’s blades. Just turned right to liquid paste as the rotor smashes into someone we knew and “loved” from the first Suicide Squad that this sequel/hard-reboot is designed to quietly erase from existence. Another man is shot right in the face. A (possibly alien?) woman burns to death. It’d be gross if it weren’t funny, but then, maybe it’s gross that we find it funny. Perhaps we are the villains as much as any of the Corto Maltese thugs or the snake-in-a-suit Waller. Wouldn’t we have to be slightly sick in the head to get our jollies by watching people be turned to mincemeat?
Sure, let’s go with that and pretend it’s a useful social comment.
Either way, the plot is both fairly straightforward—Waller sends Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), King Shark (the voice of Sylvester Stallone), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), along with some others, to clear up something in the island of Corto Maltes, where a military coup threatens to unveil dark American secrets (oooh, unearned sociopolitical depth, comic book movies are growing up!)—and also weirdly convoluted in terms of script structure, juking back and forth through time and space for little purpose other than surprising us at key moments. It’s a series of cheats, but they’re effective cheats, so we mostly let them slide.
The Suicide Squad is sometimes a clever-looking movie, playing tricks with perspective and POV. At one point we see two characters fighting in the reflection of Peacemaker’s helmet, which he has previously described as a beacon of freedom. It’s ironically symbolic, you see, because the two characters who are fighting are doing so because one of them wants to keep crucial information from the public and freedom dies in darkness, or something.
The film is funny in an adolescent way—cursing always is—though the slyest joke in the whole thing, to my mind, is the use of the song “People Who Died” in the film’s opening moments. It’s a tune that will be familiar to viewers of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, which James Gunn wrote for director Zack Snyder, who, famously, has had some issues with the way the DC film universe (of which The Suicide Squad is at least nominally a part) has played out in recent years.
I’m grumbling a lot, so I just want to say that I don’t hate The Suicide Squad—indeed, it was frequently quite amusing and only boring on the rare occasions we were subjected to backstory—but I do feel somewhat bludgeoned by it, as if I’m being a stick-in-the-mud for failing to fall in line and revel in the absurdity of a bunch of born-to-lose convicts being forced to do battle with a giant sentient space-starfish. You get the sense Gunn wants the film to be taken seriously and to leave room for it to be dismissed as a joke, nothing to get worked up about. I simply prefer it when films pick a lane and stick to it.
One thing: I bet The Suicide Squad plays great with an audience. Sadly, I had to watch at home because I was busy doing Thursday Night Bulwark this week. If you’d like to hop in the comments and yell at me for being a stick-in-the-mud (or unlock access to TNB) become a member of Bulwark+ today!
Time for a CDC Moratorium on Health-Endangering Theaters
I’m rarely shocked by a dumb political thing, but I have to say that I am fairly shocked that the Biden Administration is just defying the Supreme Court by extending an eviction moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control the Supreme Court has ruled must instead be imposed legislatively, not via an unaccountable bureaucracy just flagrantly mucking about with property rights and the such.
That said, if we’re just going to thunderously applaud while resting in our sleeping bags on the Capitol steps as liberty dies—wait, where have I heard this before—I’m going to take full advantage! Consider this my proposal for a CDC-mandated-and-enforced Moviegoer Bill of Human Rights, one that will protect the health and wellbeing of any individual who sets foot in a movie theater. As part of the CDC’s new extra-judicial regime, I and my team of stormtroopers (artist rendering above) will be going screen-to-screen to make sure that the people’s health is being protected from the scourge of shoddy movie presentation.
First up, my team and I will ensure that all theater auditoriums are projecting movies at a proper brightness. Whether that means replacing bulbs that have dimmed or upping projector brightness to ensure that the bulbs are being taken full advantage of, I and my team of white-masked bureaucrats will storm projectors around the country to make sure that no one has to suffer from deadly eye strain while watching a movie in a theater. It’s a huge problem that has shown no sign of abating over the years: Roger Ebert was literally complaining about it a decade ago.
After that, in order to ensure a decreased spread of COVID, my team will visit every screen and make sure that all the chairs have been replaced by those big, plush recliners that are hugely spaced out, creating a natural social distance cushion. If the theaters don’t have the chairs already, they’ll be forced to install them. Will this cost the property owners an enormous amount of money and hardship, just like landlords stuck with tenants who can’t pay rent? Yes! But hey: it’s all in the name of safety, baby. You’re … not opposed to safety, are you?
Next, my CDC-empowered strike force will visit screens to ensure that speakers are working properly (that is, that they’re not blown out, emitting a hiss, or causing other problems) and at a volume that is appropriately loud. As part of this effort, my team will also be judging sound bleed between screens: there’s nothing worse for your hearing than having to strain to understand dialogue during those quiet, touching Pixar moments while Michael Bay-style explosions are happening in the next theater over. Won’t someone please think of the children’s hearing!
And, finally, for the mental health of everyone who knows what “masking” really means—not the kind that goes on your face but the kind that goes on your screen, to ensure images are presented in the proper aspect ratio and with the proper darkness on the unlit portions—we’ll be going theater-to-theater to ensure operational screen-masking systems. You have no idea how crazy it drives people to sit there, wondering why there’s a greyish bar on the screen that looks worse than what you have at home on your TV. Mental health is absolutely a priority of the CDC, and this effort is necessary to protect it.
I know this is all a stretch of the CDC’s powers, but hey: Apparently, we’re well beyond little things like “bureaucratic restraint” or “the Constitution” at this point. If we’re going to abuse the power of the state, let’s make a difference for the forces of good and improve the theatrical experience for everyone.
Or, at the very least, me.
Assigned Viewing: Snake Eyes (HBO Max)
In my long piece on Nicolas Cage’s career and the paradoxical nature of his late-stage resurgence, I didn’t spend much time on that period in the 1990s when he and Al Pacino were in direct competition for Loudest Actor on the Planet. But a prime example of this period is Snake Eyes, and it’s worth checking out if you want to understand why some folks, like my long-suffering editor, don’t really dig the whole Nic Cage thing.
On the one hand, Snake Eyes a perfectly passable Brian De Palma film, meaning that it has lots of long takes and tracking shots and split-screens and split-diopters; if Hitchcock ever did it, it’s in this movie. It’s entertaining and a bit silly and, honestly, that’s enough for me. On the other, it’s an artifact of that moment when Cage was one of the biggest stars in the world, when he was both an Oscar contender and an enormous box office draw and a reliable action hero.
And as an artifact of that moment, it’s kind of amusing to watch Cage chew scenery next to the reliably contained Navy officer played by Gary Sinise and the staid-but-incredibly-attractive scientist played by Carla Gugino. Bug-eyed and manic with a cocaine-addict affect, Cage’s corrupt cop is never really believable, exactly, but he is magnetic and amusing to watch. Unless, of course, you hate that whole unbelievable, manic, coke-addled thing. In which case, well, I’m sorry I asked you to edit 2,000 words about it.
I am glad you mentioned that James Gunn got his start at Troma because there were times I thought I was watching a Troma movie with really high production values. Also John Cena was much better than I thought he would be.
It is ironic that James Gunn's firing caused the chain reaction of him delivering his most unleashed and bonkers film. I am all here for it.
Okay just watched it Suicide Squad was better than I expected.