4 Stars

James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is a goddamn miracle. A modern marvel of grindhouse exploitation set within the confines of a big-budget comic book spectacle, the soft reboot/sequel to the much-maligned and tinkered-with 2016 film, Suicide Squad, is a breath of fresh air in how unapologetic and gleefully demented it is. Coming from the mind of writer/director James Gunn, this no-holds-barred homage to The Dirty Dozen and the Troma films that gave Gunn the career he has today is the kind of large-scale piece of filmmaking that feels as though Gunn managed to steal away over $150 million of studio money and did whatever he damn well pleased with it.

Under the control of Government agent Amanda Waller (the ever-imposing Viola Davis), the newest band of supervillains forced into doing some good including Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), the oafish King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and more are sent into Corto Maltese with orders to destroy a secret lab experimenting with an alien creature known only as Project Starfish.

Guardians of the Galaxy helmer & genre expert James Gunn puts together some of the most C-level villains in the entire DC arsenal (Polka-Dot Man, TDK, Weasel, Javelin) and makes some of them out to be the more compelling “heroes” in any recent comic book film. The returning cast members (Robbie, Kinnaman, Davis, Courtney) are all once again terrific here, but the new cast members steal the show.

John Cena is perfectly cast in perhaps his best role to date as Peacemaker; a more douchey, sociopathic equivalent to Captain America. Cena’s deadpan demeanor and knack for comedic timing is an utter joy and he’s surely intimidating when he needs to be.

Idris Elba is an excellent unsuspecting hero figure in the deadly assassin, Bloodsport. In many ways, he’s the classic old-school hero, complete with homages to 60’s-era westerns and classic samurai films, but with the added layers of his character essentially being a scumbag.

King Shark, a dim-witted shark that has a craving for humans and most definitely satisfies those cravings throughout the film, is voiced comedically by Sylvester Stallone. The biggest breakthroughs in the cast come in forms of Ratcher 2 and Polka-Dot Man (Daniela Melchior and David Dastmalchian, respectively). Melchior, a relative unknown gives the most sincere and heartfelt performance in the film; unexpected from a character whose powers include the ability to summon rats. David Dastmalchian, a long-time character actor known for stealing scenes in The Dark Knight and Prisoners, infuses depth and tragedy to the character of Polka-Dot Man. Yes, the character shoots polka-dots and has mommy issues, but the actor’s irresistibly compelling presence and straight-up bizarre characteristics make him a unique leading star.

James Gunn is firing on all cylinders. His singular grasp of filmmaking is felt over every ounce of this film and he’s never been better. Returning to his original Troma roots — sporting a Lloyd Kaufman cameo and all — The Suicide Squad is abrasive, mean and operates at the right amount of tastelessness, but it’s also quite sweet and charming when it wants to be. The amount of gore and shocking carnage is plentiful — seek no further than the films gritty opening set piece on a beach that harkens back to the opening of Saving Private Ryan in terms of graphic bodily dismemberment.

However, Gunn counters the violence with a firm beating heart lodged at the center of the film. He understands these characters and the greater comic book genre as a whole better than almost any living filmmaker. Despite the seeming simplicities in the character descriptions, Gunn serves up truly intricate character work that creates some emotionally grueling moments.

A particular aspect Gunn nails is the fact that these are indeed villains and not typical heroes. Ayer’s film, while taken over by the studio, went out of its way to portray the titular squad as simply misunderstood anti-heroes, not true villains. This is not the case here. When we meet Bloodsport, he’s unsympathetic towards his young daughter (Storm Reid) and brutally berates her of her life choices. The grotesque Weasel is said to have killed 27 children and when we first meet Sevant (Michael Rooker), he purposely kills a small bird. Many of these characters are not “good guys” and that small detail goes a long way into making these characters real, true anti-heroes when they decide to step up and attempt to save innocent lives. It also makes for some extreme hilarity when characters are mercilessly killed with a cheeky grin.

The Suicide Squad finds James Gunn at the height of his storytelling abilities. Gunn wonderfully merges his ability to craft an exquisite superhero blockbuster with emotional stakes and action spectacle, with his skill making crude and ultra-violent slices of primo shlock.