There is a sense out there that James Gunn has been tasked with salvaging a troubled franchise. Suicide Squad was a bit of a catastrophe. Wasn’t it? That DC superhero – super anti-hero? – team-up set endless uninteresting origin flashbacks adrift on a morass of popping-candy violence. The thing was an awful joke. Right? Well, it made $747 million and picked up an Academy Award (which is more than The Trial of the Chicago 7 managed). Yet that sub-zero Rotten Tomatoes rating still lingers.
At any rate, Gunn’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning box-office smash has worked a degree of creative reinvention. No, it is not in black and white or anything. The stupidly named thugs do not spend their time contemplating eternity on a Baltic island.
Indeed, the 15A hyper- violence that some fans regard as a badge of maturity – in truth, closer in tone to Tom and Jerry than Taxi Driver – has been hyped up to greater levels. More than one body is chewed in half for kicks. But Gunn’s own script does, thank heavens, impose some discipline on the characters. His admitted models were mission films such as The Dirty Dozen and, whereas the definite article-free predecessor flailed for two hours, the new film has a plot that can be summarised in a neat paragraph.
A bunch of superpowered maniacs in a high-security prison are, under threat of death, compelled to land on a South American island dictatorship and liberate a prison where all sorts of sinister experiments are taking place. In the process, they encounter a giant starfish that has the ability to spread smaller starfish about the planet and make brainless slaves of those unlucky enough to become facial hosts. It’s not exactly Tokyo Story, but it makes more sense than what came before.
Gunn and the DC board have been ruthless in the selection of their team. Everyone wants to see Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Nobody wants to see Jared Leto back as the Joker (it’s not often that character is the weak link). So she is in and he is dropped for the big game.
Carrying on from her standalone turn in Birds of Prey – the converse to Suicide Squad in that it got great reviews, but scored disappointing box office – Robbie is still trying too hard even for material as broad as this. The yard-wide New Yawk accent and mile-wide grin allow not a modicum of variation in the performance, but her irrepressible energy still manages to draw attention from everyone else on screen.
Idris Elba is equally charismatic and, asked to do less gurning, delivers as the barrelling mercenary Bloodsport. John Cena honours his contract to appear in all such mad franchises. An unrecognisable Sylvester Stallone steals scenes as a sweet-hearted man-shark who moons over dancing fish before chewing the heads off passing enemies.
Gunn’s leanings towards The Dirty Dozen are largely cosmetic. Films in that genre relied hugely on the assumed personae of the well-loved actors. The Suicide Squad buries its stars in such a weather system of noise, practical special effects, violence and cutthroat editing that, the contributions of Elba and Robbie noted, it often barely matters who is taking on the roles. The film does, however, claw out some original territory in its mad cartoon world.
If the director’s two Guardians of the Galaxy films played like 1970s Saturday- morning telly on mild stimulants, The Suicide Squad works like 1970s midnight movies juiced up with whatever it was the authors of contemporaneous horror comics were taking. Those parasitic starfish really are creepy. The relentless audiovisual attack of the thing deserves to be (literally) weaponised.
Hardcore fans will rejoice in telling us it is not for children. It’s not really for adults either. But the eternal inner adolescent that lives within us all will almost certainly have a swell time.
Opens on July 30th