The Suicide Squad – Directed by James Gunn. Written by James Gunn. Starring Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Jai Courtney, Peter Capadi, Michael Rooker, Alice Braga, Pete Davidson, Nathan Fillion, Flula Borg, Taika Waititi, Sean Gunn, and the voice of Sylvester Stallone

***1/2 out of ****

Ray: Five years ago, DC gave us Suicide Squad, the first adaptation of their gritty espionage comic about conscripted supervillains fighting evil for the government…and it was a complete disaster. While it was carried by a strong performance by Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, it was plagued by a weak remaining cast, a terrible and nonsensical villain, and one of the worst Joker performances in DC history by a mugging, cringe-worthy Jared Leto. It was almost enough to make you long for Society Joker. The franchise looked like it would be one and done – and then the Nazis got ahold of James Gunn’s old tweets. After the offbeat director got briefly fired by Disney, DC wasted no time and signed him up to reboot the franchise.

While all’s well that ends well at Disney, we are very lucky that the whole affair played out the way it did. The Suicide Squad couldn’t be more different than its misbegotten predecessor. Unlike the successful Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which are definitely Gunn-light, this is a movie written and drawn by the eccentric Troma creator, complete with an R-rating and the same twisted humor he brought to his earlier projects like Slither. It wastes no time showing us that, with a wild opening segment as Harley, team leader Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), and a motley crew of criminals are deployed to the Central American nation of Corto Maltese under the watchful eye of ruthless team commander Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). Betrayals, carnage, and comedy ensue in a bloody battle – and the main narrative hasn’t even really started.

Will Smith’s Deadshot hasn’t returned for the sequel, so The Suicide Squad needs a new leading man, and they get it in Idris Elba’s Bloodsport. The two are actually pretty similar – a household-name black actor playing a master marksman who is humanized by his daughter – but Elba’s version is definitely the superior one. He has a grit to him, coming to the Squad off nearly assassinating Superman with a Kryptonite bullet, and has to be blackmailed into the team by Waller. The comic book original was one of the most underrated Superman villains for a while, so it was great to see him brought to life here.

As the new Suicide Squad is sent in to rescue a captured Rick Flagg, Bloodsport is paired with a suitably weird crew, including John Cena’s buff Peacemaker, a Captain America archetype gone wrong whose role in the team is always a little unclear. Fans of Falcon and the Winter Soldier will recognize some similarities with US Agent, but Cena’s take is enjoyably off-kilter. They’re joined by the young Ratcatcher II (Melchior), a quirky young woman who inherited her bond with rats from her late father; Polka-Dot Man (Dastmalchian), a neurotic nerd with bizarre powers and a sad backstory; and Nanaue (Sylvester Stallone) a hulking shark-man with the mind of a child. They don’t look like a great team – and they’re not. That’s what makes this movie work.

While there is a previous Suicide Squad movie, this film actually finds its inspiration in another franchise – Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool, where a mostly-well-meaning antihero unleashes ultraviolent chaos that’s only occasionally aimed in the right direction. As the team is unleashed on Corto Maltese, it earns its R-rating in spades, with some clever ultraviolence and crude jokes in the great Gunn tradition. Despite this, though, the movie is surprisingly able to get us to invest emotionally in its heroes, particularly the odd bond that forms between Ratcatcher and Nanaue, and a brilliant flashback to the young Ratcatcher’s bond with her father (Taika Waititi, phenomenal as always). And if Ratcatcher’s intelligent pet rat Sebastian doesn’t become a breakout star, there is no God.

Robbie’s Harley Quinn, oddly, often seems to be in a different movie. She’s missing for a big chunk of it, then resurfaces in a strange soap-opera parody subplot before rejoining the team, and while I’m not sure the scripting around her is the best, she’s always brilliant. She’s appeared in three movies so far, the first two pretty bad, and always managed to outshine them. Here she’s at her chaotic best and having the time of her live in a movie that finally deserves her. Now give her the Gotham City Sirens movie she actually deserves!

The villains were a massive weak point of the first Suicide Squad movie, and that’s thankfully not the case here. Of course, with this team, everyone’s sort of a villain – there really are no morally pure characters here, with the probable exception of Sebastian (WE THINK), but Gunn doesn’t skip out on giving us some loathsome bad guys. The Corto Maltese conspiracy is led by a hammy Peter Capaldi as The Thinker, dripping British condescension. And of course, it’s been spoiled that the evil tyrant Starro makes an appearance in this movie, and his scenes may be the best American kaiju story ever told. It’s some of the most perfectly comic-book storytelling ever, and brought to life with the perfect veneer of Gunn’s insanity.

Overall, The Suicide Squad occasionally becomes too chaotic for its own good, but makes up for it with a likable group of antiheroes and a tone that perfectly captures the series’ violent espionage roots. It’s one of the best live-action DC films of the modern era.

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