Irreverent and eccentric, ‘The Suicide Squad’ is more about making and exploiting victims, not villains

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Airlifted in from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, writer-director James Gunn blends the zany irreverence of his “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise with the bleak nihilism largely scrubbed from the lost original cut of 2016’s “Suicide Squad” to create “The Suicide Squad,“ a part-sequel, part-reimagining of filmmaker David Ayer’s maligned origin film.

Ayer’s film was a mess of pacing, editing and plot, but it succeeded in introducing memorable (for better or worse) film characters, chiefly Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Will Smith’s Deadshot, Viola Davis’s Amanda Waller and Jared Leto’s divisive interpretation of The Joker.

Robbie has made Harley Quinn something of a cottage industry, and she returns in Gunn’s “standalone sequel,” along with Davis. Leto is AWOL (having recently made a redemptive cameo in Zack Snyder’s recut of “Justice League”), and Smith is supplanted by Idris Elba as Robert DuBois, aka Bloodsport, an uber-mercenary coerced into joining Waller’s Task Force X, an imprisoned rogues gallery conscripted into serving the U.S. government in exchange for a shorter prison sentence and Waller not detonating explosives implanted in their heads.

The mission du jour is to penetrate the fictional island nation of Corto Maltese and storm Jötunheim, a donjon housing the mysterious and destructive Project Starfish. The leaders of a military coup are threatening to deploy Starfish against America and its allies, and Waller’s suicide squad is tasked with stopping them.

Two Task Force X teams are deployed to Corto Maltese, only for the first to be summarily obliterated before the opening credits. Eventually joined by Quinn and field leader Rick Flag (John Kinnaman), the surviving squad comprises Bloodsport; Cleo Cazo / Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), who is able to mass control rodents; Abner Krill / Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a hapless science experiment gone wrong who can (nay, must) regularly expel destructive colored dots; the humanoid King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone); and Christopher Smith / Peacemaker (John Cena), a sociopath who kills with ruthless precision and abandon in the name of some unknown and unattainable goal of peace.

The wit of Gunn’s “Guardians” films is replicated here, fed through an even bleaker comedic filter. Bloodsport and Peacemaker turn the invasion of a jungle enemy camp into a droll game of murderous one-upmanship. After being wined and dined, Quinn beds an admiring suitor before shooting him because he gives off the “red flags” of her long-standing bad taste in men — ”All in all, I think you’re more pretty like this, with all those rotten thoughts emptied from your head,” she says, standing over his prone corpse as the life oozes out.

Still, this scriptwriting troupe is well-worn and quickly loses its edge.

Where “The Suicide Squad” really succeeds, and separates itself from its predecessor (which was more about America relying on bad people to do our dirty business), is re-framing its characters as victims, not just villains, born from the truly evil minders looking to correct their errors by compounding their immorality. Krill was victimized by his scientist mother, and Quinn is the psychotic victim of an abusive man. Waller compels Bloodsport’s services by threatening his teenage daughter. King Shark is a half-human, half-sea creature lacking friends in either species. Ratcatcher 2 dutifully carries on the burdensome birthright from her father, bound to animals also misunderstood and ostracized by society.

The real heel is American interventionism, be it political, scientific, or military, embodied by Waller and Peacemaker. “I cherish peace with all my heart and I don’t care how many men, women, and children I need to kill to get it,” Smith says with a pointedly on-the-nose air of American jingoism. Peacemaker’s amoral mission focus is not unlike Ash, the android in “Alien,” which is not the only indirect allusion to that film. Project Starfish turns out to be an American-conceived military science endeavor involving Starro, a kaiju starfish. Unlike the comic books, in which Starro is an extraterrestrial conqueror, here it’s an alien creature kidnapped from its home world and brought to Earth for experimentation and exploitation of its abilities, which include spawning miniature starfish that latch onto the faces of its prey to form a parasitic and sentient link. Starro’s ultimate rampage is motivated less by world domination and more by retribution against his captors and tormentors — “I was happy floating, staring at the stars,” Starro laments at one point. The ultimate mission to Corto Maltese is not about liberating an oppressed populace or necessarily destroying a weapon of mass destruction, but rather only neutralizing its potential threat to America and eradicating any U.S. connection to its creation, no matter how many American “assets” or brown-skinned people die as a result.

“The Suicide Squad” leans too heavily at times on its bon mots, squirrelly CGI and force-fed cheekiness. And while not its fault, it has the misfortune of landing in a cinematic landscape fatigued by superhero movies. But its vibe and vision are more aligned with its overall concept, and what the original film should have been.

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