There are two things that James Gunn does better than just about anyone else on the planet: One is making glossy mega-budget superhero movies that still march to the beat of their own drum (e.g. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”), and the other is making over-the-top gore-fests so gross they straddle the line between indie cinema and outsider art (e.g. the darkly satirical “Super,” which in hindsight seems like a mission statement). Gunn might be the only person to direct blockbuster tentpoles for both Marvel and DC, but he’s still the guy who co-wrote Troma’s “Tromeo and Juliet” at heart. And by the time the opening credits of “The Suicide Squad” are spelled out in the head blood that seeps from a supporting character’s freshly exploded skull, it’s clear that he always will be.
The most fun and least depressing superhero movie in a very long time, Gunn’s deliriously ultra-violent “The Suicide Squad” wears the yoke of its genre with a lightness that allows it to slip loose of the usual restraints, if not quite shake them off altogether. It must be liberating to make a $150 million (give or take) mulligan for a widely maligned disaster that still managed to gross almost a billion dollars despite becoming a punchline along the way, and that’s really what this unhinged carnival of R-rated cartoon mayhem amounts to at the end of the day: Not a reboot of or a sequel to 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” but rather a second draft.
It has also been fabulously conceived: Gunn’s entire creative team brings a level of energy and ingenuity that dwarfs most blockbusters. Henry Braham’s widescreen lensing makes The Suicide Squad’s inventive compositions a must-see in a theatre, while John Murphy’s rock-infused score consistently amplifies the onscreen intensity. Plenty of comic-book films rely on slow-motion, but Gunn and editors Fred Raskin and Christian Wagner utilise the technique to give sequences a balletic grace that’s equally clever and stunning — in particular during a showdown between Harley and a pack of soldiers who don’t realise who they’ve tangled with.
Robbie played Harley for the first time in the 2016 film, reprising the role for last year’s Birds Of Prey, but she’s never been so assured as she is here, worrying less about emphasising the character’s fractured psyche and, instead, leaning into her effortlessly childlike sense of menace. She’s joined in the lively ensemble by Daniela Melchior as the charming Ratcatcher 2, a Squad member who can control rats to do her bidding, and David Dastmalchian as the nerdy Polka-Dot Man, who amusingly draws on his unresolved tensions with his mother in order to justify killing people.
In fairness to Robbie, “The Suicide Squad” hits a speed bump whenever it slows down to spotlight a single member of the team. And yet, if Polka-Dot Man’s obsession with his mother grows less amusing every time we see her face, Gunn’s commitment to the bit amid the chaos of everything else is inextricable from the energy that elevates this movie above the product it’s selling. Even the flattest beats are worth the feeling that Gunn got to do what he wanted; that Warner Bros. didn’t note this thing to death; that Weasel might return one day when we need him most. And if you don’t appreciate just how refreshing that is, stick around for a post-credits stinger that will remind you of how grimly synergistic these things can be. If the movies are killing themselves with superhero overload, at least “The Suicide Squad” suggests the medium will go down laughing.