Movie review

“The Suicide Squad” gets right to it right away.

It opens with the soundtrack strains of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” signaling the Squad’s status as a bunch of hard-core convicts.

Not long after, there’s Jim Carroll’s rocking, doom-soaked “People Who Died,” cluing viewers in to the fact that a whole bunch of these people aren’t long for the picture.

It has a huge cast, but it’s significantly whittled down within the first 15 minutes in a variety of gory ways. Gunned down, blown up, shredded and flambéed. Well, they knew the job was dangerous when they took it.

In point of fact, they didn’t so much take the assignment as have it thrust upon them. As fans of DC Comics and audiences of the first cinematic iteration, 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” know, they’ve been press-ganged into service by one Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). She’s a scary U.S. government apparatchik, who offers them the opportunity to go on suicidally dangerous secret missions in exchange for a promise to reduce their sentences. Any backsliding will be met with the detonation of minibombs implanted in their skulls. Think of it as Motivation, with a capital M.

Their mission is to invade a jungled island to destroy a secret weapon complex. The weapon is a Godzilla-sized starfish. At the end of all the shoot-’em-up scenes, a monster movie breaks out.

Most of these villains are relative minor leaguers in the DC canon. Polka-Dot Man, anyone? (Kills by flinging multicolored polka-dots that dismember on contact. Gruesome. Weird.) And as such are pretty expendable.

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But there are also the well-knowns in the ranks, foremost among them Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie is back playing the lethal mischief maker. After two previous performances in the role, in the 2016 “Squad” and in 2020’s “Birds of Prey,” she’s now completely comfortable in the part, saucy, preening, preternaturally cheery and utterly demented.

Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and King Shark (mumbles and grumbles by Sylvester Stallone) in “The Suicide Squad.” (Warner Bros. Pictures / DC Comics)

Curiously though, Harley is not the center of attention this time. Writer-director James Gunn, the man who made “Guardians of the Galaxy” such an unhinged delight, has made her part of an ensemble. In so doing, he’s spread the acting riches around. Most notable is the character Bloodsport (Idris Elba), an expert in all kinds of weapons. He’s a commanding presence, full of anger. He really hates the serve-or-die choice imposed on him by Waller, and in an early scene where he confronts her face-to-face, the two actors are forbiddingly ferocious and the screen incandesces.

Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2 in “The Suicide Squad.” (Warner Bros. Pictures / DC Comics)

Other standouts are John Cena, who plays a vain killer named Peacemaker, and a young woman named Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior). Her special talent is, as her name suggests, the ability to summon rats. Who, in answer to her summons, swarm baddies in rivers of ravenous rodent flesh.

There is plenty of humor in the movie, a Gunn trademark as he proved in “Guardians.” Bloody-minded fun, to be sure. The character of King Shark, a humongous fish, walks about on two large feet in a pair of shorts and regularly chomps unlucky victims. His squad-mates have to caution him not to chomp on them. The beast communicates in barely intelligible mumbles and grumbles supplied by Sylvester Stallone. It’s his best performance in years. It’s this movie’s equivalent to Vin Diesel’s work as Groot.

Gunn masterfully mixes humor and bloodshed and manages to give a surprising number of characters room to develop their personas. And when it comes to staging set pieces, he’s at his best. The moment when Harley, relatively subdued for much of the movie, is unleashed on hordes of bad guys, blazing away with scores of weapons, is a stretched-out showstopper. It’s what one would expect from a director named Gunn.

With Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Viola Davis, Sylvester Stallone, Daniela Melchior, Peter Capaldi. Written and directed by James Gunn. 132 minutes. Rated R for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity. Opens Thursday, Aug. 5, at multiple theaters and on HBO Max.

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