'The Suicide Squad' Review: James Gunn Serves A Splatter-Filled Superhero Romp With A Sprinkling Of Sweetness

Warner Bros. has prided itself in making "director-driven" DC superhero movies, and rarely has that directive paid off as gloriously as it has with James Gunn's The Suicide Squad. We've read the headlines at this point: Gunn was given free rein to do whatever he wanted with his follow-up (but not a sequel) to David Ayer's 2016 Suicide Squad, including indulging in R-rated mayhem and hiring Peter Capaldi to wear tracksuits and say "f***" as much as he wants. And boy, does Gunn deliver.

With the phenomenal success of his Guardians of the Galaxy movies (and all the needle-drop nostalgia they have reaped), it's easy to forget that Gunn was once a genre provocateur behind the likes of B-movie cult hits like Slither and Super. But before he raised cuddly characters like Groot out of obscurity with his wildly popular Marvel movies, Gunn was not afraid to shock and awe, and push a few envelopes, especially when it came to gore. And he revisits his roots with The Suicide Squad, a spectacularly violent, at-times surprisingly sweet superhero/supervillain flick.

To his credit, Gunn doesn't simply repeat the Guardians of the Galaxy formula, which many probably think he would, given the notoriously Guardians-lite studio-mandated edit of Ayer's Suicide Squad. Instead, Gunn chooses to put his own very distinct mark on The Suicide Squad, populating it with the most obscure D-list DC characters, giving them motive, giving them deep backstories, and giving many of them a horribly gruesome death. It's clear Gunn empathizes with outsiders and misfits, and you can't get more ragtag than the crew Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, needing no steak-chewing introduction, as she chews up every scene she appears in) assembled for this Task Force X.

Our de facto protagonist in The Suicide Squad is Robert DuBois/Bloodsport (Idris Elba, turning up his innate charm while getting to tap into his underused self-deprecating attitude), a mercenary imprisoned at Belle Reve for putting Superman in the ICU with a Kryptonite bullet. After Waller threatens his daughter (Storm Reid), Bloodsport is reluctantly brought in to lead Waller's Task Force X on a mission in Corto Maltese, a fictional South American country that had recently undergone a violent military coup. And the new regime is not so keen on America. But Waller's mission for Task Force X, curiously, isn't to depose the new military regime, but to infiltrate and destroy the country's Nazi-era laboratory Jotunheim, where the Thinker (Peter Capaldi, essentially playing a supervillain Malcolm Tucker) is cooking up something nefarious.

Joining Bloodsport's team are Peacemaker (John Cena, all swaggering nastiness), a jingoistic killer who frequently tries to one-up Bloodsport; Ratcatcher 2 (a wonderfully guileless Daniela Melchior), a petty criminal with technology that controls rats; the miserable "experiment gone wrong" Polka-Dot Man (a scene-stealing David Dastmalchian); and the adorable MVP of the film, Nanaue/King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone, mo-capped by Steve Agee), the lumbering Groot-like figure of the group, who has a taste for human flesh.

Meanwhile, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, finally able to inject some Southern fried personality into his stalwart soldier) is back and leading a mission that includes Suicide Squad favorite Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, gleefully wearing the character like a second skin that she cut up herself), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, unhinged as ever), Savant (Michael Rooker), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), TDK (Nathan Fillion), Javelin (Flula Borg), Mongal (Mayling Ng), and the terrifying gag monster from the pits of hell, Weasel (Sean Gunn).

To go further into how this ludicrously large ensemble gets together (or more accurately, how the film starts to quickly and violently deplete their numbers) would risk getting into spoiler territory, but it's in the name, isn't it? You can't expect too many characters to live in a film called The Suicide Squad. And yet, Gunn performs the magic trick we've seen him do time and time again: he makes us care for these terribly immoral, most likely doomed, characters. (Well, except for Weasel, he can go back to the dumpster from hell that he crawled out from.) The core group starts to morph into an unlikely family unit — albeit a family that includes several murderous uncles and a suicidal cousin. At the center of this strange family is the unexpected father-daughter dynamic that blossoms between Bloodsport and Ratcatcher 2, even if Melchior's depiction of the pure-hearted rat-controller is basically a variation of Pom Klementieff's Mantis in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. But it's clear that Gunn cares for each of these characters, bringing to The Suicide Squad some of the earnest empathy that he honed in his Guardians movies.

Gunn's cynicism may be gone, but not his nastiness. The Suicide Squad is brutal in such a way that I started to feel my limits for gross-out violence being tested. To count the number of heads that are exploded or faces that are ripped off would involve sitting here all day, but the deaths in The Suicide Squad are admittedly so absurdly imaginative that you're never in danger of getting bored. Of course, Gunn pulls off each of these hyperviolent deaths with a wink and a tongue-in-cheek quip — the jokes fly as quickly as the blood splatter hits every corner of the frame. All of this is aided by Gunn's heightened vision for The Suicide Squad: one that is bright, and colorful, and vibrant — calling back both to the comic book pages that inspire the movie, and to '70s exploitation films. It's Gunn unleashed, not just in terms of R-rated mayhem, but in his directorial flair.

At times, The Suicide Squad feels less like a movie than a mission statement from a director. Behold, look what I can do with a budget and all the comic book characters I can play with. But, the unexpected heart at the center of the film, a sneaky anti-imperialist bent, and Gunn's wild visual leaps make The Suicide Squad a bloody, gory delight.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10