Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
And here is The Suicide Squad, a quasi-sequel to the half-assed 2016 film Suicide Squad. The new one, written and directed by James Gunn, is a slight improvement; at least the characters don’t keep constantly reminding us of how cool they are. The opening gambit here is, admittedly, pretty good: a bunch of miscreants with superpowers are gathered for a mission, Dirty Dozen-style, and we expect they will stick around for the rest of the movie (especially given a few name actors in the bunch), but most of them are promptly slaughtered in a botched assault.
Among the survivors are Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), and Polka-Dot Man (the amusingly off-kilter David Dastmalchian, one of the reasons to see the film, though not enough of one). We also have Viola Davis returning to her boss-lady role, with diminishing returns. Top-billed in the cast is Margot Robbie, back for her third (and hopefully final) go-’round as Harley Quinn, the psycho in braids. Aside from making you wonder what kind of good work Robbie could have been doing in the time it’s taken to mount these three mega-projects, it has to be noted that Robbie’s Harley Quinn performance is one of the few miscalculations in a shrewd actor’s repertoire. Her attack on the role is so cartoony and forced that it scuttles the comic possibilities—and yes, the whole thing is a cartoon anyway, but still, the broadness of her performance doesn’t click. (One of the few laughs I got out of the new movie was Robbie’s cheerful, understated “Hola,” to a cab driver after a bloody scene of incredible mayhem.)
Gunn works hard to stick in a critique of American foreign policy, baldly stated at times; the Peacemaker, for instance, is a super-violent super-patriot, and his incongruous name is perfectly in line with the soft-touch branding of nation-building ventures. There’s one strong idea in this vein, when the crew skillfully massacres a group of exactly the wrong people, only to sheepishly realize their mistake in the aftermath—a serviceable metaphor for America’s tendency to blunder into jungles and deserts and mess up the mission. In my review of Gunn’s film Super, I said, “It has the flavor of a 1970s film, where satirical moments are suddenly followed by something violent and distinctly not funny.” Gunn tries for this feeling in The Suicide Squad, but this particular massacre scene—in contrast to the other massacre scenes—is the only spot where he really nails that balance.
I liked Super, and I liked the first Guardians of the Galaxy, where Gunn’s smirky blend of pop songs and self-spoofing comedy violence made a better fit. Applying that same vibe to the unpleasant murderers of The Suicide Squad gives this movie a rancid flavor right from the very beginning, as it can’t stop nudging the audience about how ridiculous all of this is; the opening reel is essentially a series of eye-rolls about the film’s own preposterousness, with the audience flattered at being in on the joke (“We’re bein’ teamed up with a giant land shark? You gotta be fuckin’ kiddin’ me, har har!”). The culmination of this look-how-stupid-this-movie-we’re-all-watching-is approach comes in a climax that involves a Godzilla-sized sea star wreaking havoc in a Latin American city, an absurdity so blatant it gives you the distinct feeling Gunn is telling us how moronic we are for having stuck with the movie this long. By the way, the easy destruction of the Latin American setting, and the nonentities who inhabit the place, seems to contradict the film’s political critique just a tad, as The Suicide Squad treats the location and the people in the same dehumanized way as any average ’80s action flick.
Two inspired moments: A kind of meta-conversation about a character named Milton, a hapless fellow the audience has probably been wondering about, too. Oh, how I wish the rest of the movie had been about that. Also, at one juncture Rick Flag must comfort Harley Quinn, and in putting her in an embrace, Joel Kinnaman pats Margot Robbie’s bare back with the gun in his hand, clapping her spine with hard metal. The tender touch of the 21st-century American man. An extraordinary image for our moment, buried in a trough of genuinely dispiriting movie product.
August 20, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.