Rebecca’s Take

It’s rare for a movie to get a redo. But this year, two films in the DC Comics’ extended universe have gotten just that.

First, Zack Snyder retooled 2017’s maligned “Justice League” to bring us his original vision in the dazzling opus “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” Now, James Gunn puts his unique stamp on “The Suicide Squad,” a new and improved take on 2016’s messy “Suicide Squad.”

Like “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” “The Suicide Squad” is the film we should have gotten in the first place. Though not quite a remake, the loosely connected sequel, playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, greatly improves upon its mixed bag of a predecessor. Gunn’s gleefully fun and ultraviolent supervillain teamup delivers on the concept the original film promised but failed to fully execute.

The comic book flick follows the adventures of a motley crew of convicts assembled by ruthless project head Amanda Waller (the returning Viola Davis) to perform classified life-or-death missions for the government. This time, the group – made up of new and familiar faces – is sent to infiltrate an island to destroy a Nazi laboratory that contains a secret experiment. But the group gets more than they bargained for when they come face-to-face with Starro the Conquerer, a giant alien starfish (you read that right) – and their loyalties are put to the test.

I’m one of the few people who thought the 2016 “Suicide Squad” was well, OK. David Ayer’s film was fun enough, with standout performances by Will Smith as charismatic assassin Deadshot and Margot Robbie as the deranged but lovable Harley Quinn. But the action was poorly shot and the storyline muddled, with an atrocious turn by Jared Leto as the Joker. Ayer blamed Warner Bros.’ studio interference for the underwhelming result, although the film became a worldwide hit.

If “Suicide Squad” was a rough draft, then “The Suicide Squad” is the polished final version. With a new writer-director, the high-stakes film features a cohesive story, well-shot action, stunning special effects and better developed characters. Unlike Ayer, Gunn was given free rein to run wild with his R-rated vision, and the film is better for it. The mastermind of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s quirky and heartfelt “Guardians of the Galaxy” films is the perfect choice to helm the irreverent blockbuster about another ragtag group of misfits.

“The Suicide Squad” takes its title literally. While the 2016 film was leery to kill off its core crew, the new film establishes in its opening minutes that no one is safe. The shocking start sets the mood for the high-octane thrill ride. The film leans hard into bloody, cartoon-style violence, putting the “Deadpool” films to shame. People are literally ripped apart, faces are shot off and limbs fly. Though the graphic imagery works for the film, it’s not for the faint of heart.

The film ups the ante for its action sequences. While the original film’s action was murky, the set pieces here are bright and clear. The camera glides across a village takedown and a breath-taking building collapse to the candy-colored, no-holds-barred finale that looks like it came right out of the pages of a comic book. As the larger-than-life CGI starfish, the imposing Starro looks marvelous onscreen, making a great villain for our antiheroes to unite against. The spectacular special effects warrant consideration for next year’s Oscars category.

The gifted Gunn balances the intense thrills of “The Suicide Squad” with quiet moments that allow the audience to sympathize with and root for these characters. When Harley Quinn said in the original film, “We’re bad guys – it’s what we do,” the follow-up upholds her motto as its characters use their distinctive powers to work with and against each other, keeping viewers guessing.

The new members of the cast gel together better than in the first film. With Smith unable to return, Idris Elba steps up as Bloodsport, an assassin who reluctantly joins the group. Though the character is strikingly similar to Deadshot, Elba makes a great leader for the crew. The actor plays the character as tough but with a moral center. Bloodsport shares a lovely connection with Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a hopeful young woman whose ability is to control rats. The fantastic Melchior is compelling as the sweet and soulful member of the crew who carries around her friendly rat, Sebastian.

The other standouts include John Cena, who gets to showcase his humor and action resume as Peacemaker. The twisted version of Captain America competes with Bloodsport to be the group’s alpha male. I also liked the awkward David Dastmalchian as Polka-Dot Man, whose strange ability of throwing polka dots comes with a tragic backstory. As the voice of King Shark, Sylvester Stallone’s Groot-like character may become a new fan favorite. Michael Rooker makes an impression as Savant as we see the group’s mission through his point of view.

On the returning side is Joel Kinnaman, who impressed me as loyal soldier Rick Flag in the first film. The game Kinnaman gets more to do here as the colonel must deal with a new group of recruits. The phenomenal Davis inspires fear as the merciless Waller grows more unhinged.

In her third time playing the irrepressible Harley Quinn, Robbie is magnificent, owning every scene she’s in. The wildly popular character continues to evolve from Joker’s devoted girlfriend in “Suicide Squad” and the independent anarchist in last year’s “Birds of Prey.” In a perfect meshing of actress and character, Robbie zeros in on new aspects of the still-deranged antihero to play. My favorite scenes in the film involve Harley, including a monologue regarding relationship “red flags” and a colorful action sequence that sees flowers fly out from her.

While “The Suicide Squad” knew bringing back Harley was a necessity, the film doesn’t always know how to integrate her into the story. The character is largely absent from the film’s first hour, and she spends most of the second act on a side quest that separates her from the main group. The odd choice causes the film to feel disjointed.

At 2 hours and 12 minutes long, the film’s pacing is uneven. For as action-packed as the film is, the story grinds to a halt whenever Peter Capaldi’s villainous scientist, the Thinker, comes on the scene to deliver exposition. Yet at other times, the intensity is cranked up so high that I needed to stop the film just to catch my breath. A little bit of trimming could have tightened up the film.

After “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” DC and Warner Bros. are two for two with reimaginings of past comic book films. In Gunn’s hands, “The Suicide Squad” accomplishes its mission: to deliver a fun and over-the-top comic book flick, with a group of miscreants ready to worm their way into our hearts. The new film supersedes the original in almost every way, with better characters, plot, action and special effects. It may have taken five years, but we finally got “The Suicide Squad” that we were promised.

4 out of 5 stars

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Margot Robbie in a scene from “The Suicide Squad.” (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Joe’s Take

After mixed reception of 2013’s “Man of Steel” and 2016’s underwhelming “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” The DC Extended Universe needed a shot in the arm. Looking to capture the quality and the love fans had for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DCEU released “Suicide Squad” later in 2016. But not before some reshoots to make it more fun and more like 2014’s MCU film “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Instead of righting the ship, the DCEU hit rock bottom. “Suicide Squad” was the worst movie I saw in 2016. The atrocious editing, horrible villain, worst Joker on record, tonal issues and visual nightmare had me calling for the end of the DCEU. How could the franchise recover when its film slated to save the project actually made it worse? The answer came in 2017’s “Wonder Woman.” The moment Gal Gadot as Diana Prince stepped onto No Man’s Land, the DCEU found a spark. Found an identity. Separate from that of the rival MCU.

While levels of quality varied as the films went on, the DCEU undoubtedly improved. “Aquaman,” “Shazam!” and “Birds of Prey” in 2018-2020 turned the DCEU into an exciting franchise. Even “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” in March retroactively improved the team-up film. There was no better time to eliminate the existence of “Suicide Squad” by adding an article.

“The Suicide Squad” is the movie the DCEU needed five years ago. Interestingly enough, the studio brought in the guy it tried to copy a half a decade earlier. James Gunn, the writer and director of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” brought his mind to a property that needed a jolt. While I haven’t explored a ton of Gunn’s work, he has an uncanny ability to find humor in scenarios that shouldn’t be funny. It’s exactly what the film needed. He transitions from a more family-friendly property in “Guardians of the Galaxy” to a hard R-rated film in “The Suicide Squad.” He has worked with fellow DCEU writer and director Snyder on 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” and wrote 2016’s violent “The Belko Experiment.” He brings his diversity to “The Suicide Squad.”

The imagination of every action sequence stands out as no two are the same. Whether we’re watching part of a fight in the reflection of a helmet, or seeing flowers bloom in place of blood or enjoying characters trying to one-up each other in the midst of a battle, the audience is having a blast. Fun and funny are the key words that make this film work. With all the violence and death, I shouldn’t have laughed as much as I did. But, that’s the brilliance of Gunn. Finding humor where there is none.
Gunn also keeps the pace rapid. “The Suicide Squad” never takes its foot off the gas, telling its story through action and visual storytelling, instead of the drolling exposition of its awful predeccessor. When characters needed to talk, Gunn always created movement within the scene. Characters would be running, fighting or riding in a van with a quick tracking shot among the characters conversing.

No disrespect to Will Smith, but Idris Elba is a better lead for this franchise. Although Smith played Deadshot in 2016 and Elba portrays Bloodsport, it’s essentially the same role. While Smith’s charisma is unmatched, he usually plays the good guy in every film. Elba has more of an edge as an actor and more of an imposing presence. When he’s spewing expletives, it feels more natural than the former clean rapper. Elba is perfect for the role, mastering the physicality, edge and heart necessary to lead a film with a stacked cast.

I don’t know what more there is to say about Margot Robbie, but she owns the role of Harley Quinn. I think at this point it has to be known as an iconic superhero movie role. To be the best part of the horrible 2016 “Suicide Squad” and then work to make the character 10 times better in the next two films is iconic. She’s downright hilarious with her verbal and physical comedy and once again proves an action star. With blockbuster credibility and two Oscar nominations at age 31, we’re going to see Robbie’s greatness for decades.

John Cena (Peacemaker) brings the charisma that I expected from him in “Fast 9.” He plays off Elba perfectly as the characters’ similarities lead them to show off in front of each other. Daniela Melchior (Ratcatcher 2) shines as the heart of the film. Not a performance I expected a lot from, but in the end “The Suicide Squad” needed it and she came through. Joel Kinnaman (Colonel Rick Flag) was much better in this iteration than the predecessor. Amazing what actors can do with good material. Sylvester Stallone plays King Shark who is literally a big shark with legs. This is supposed to be the Groot character from “Guardians of the Galaxy” and I’m a bit mixed on him. There are times when King Shark is great and adorable and there are times he slows the film down. I’ll call it a wash. Viola Davis (Amanda Waller) is once again overqualified for the position and she does her part. There’s really nothing special about the performance. If I were nominated for an Oscar every few years, I wouldn’t be concerned with the strength of my characters in blockbuster films.

While Gunn captures the right tone 97% of the time in this film, there are some sequences that feel a little out of place. Also, the plot is a little wacky, even for this film. The ultimate being in the final showdown seems way too powerful for a team of mostly humans without superpowers. It was a problem in the 2016 version as well. However, for what the film needed to accomplish to rid itself of the stink of its predecessor, the cast and crew could not have done a better job.

People rarely admit to mistakes and then try to better themselves. However, Warner Bros. recognized its error and climbed out of a hole. If you told me five years ago the DCEU will have righted the ship by 2021 with a “Suicide Squad” film that lives up to expectations, I would have laughed you out of the building. That’s exactly what happened. “The Suicide Squad” is everything the 2016 version should have been. It proved an absolute blast combined with the quality filmmaking we’ve come to expect from Gunn.

4.5 out of 5 stars