The Naked Gunn
James Gunn and David Ayer are friends, but the use of the definite article in differentiating his film from Ayer’s butchered and beleaguered 2016 supervillain team up is instructive. “The” marks the 2021 version as the real deal – the final draft, and few will argue. Gunn, given the backing and free reign denied to Ayer, has made a movie more personable, more coherent, and altogether more irreverent than its predecessor. Doubtless it will be a huge hit, which tells us the only thing separating flops from critically acclaimed blockbusters is time. 22 years ago we called this stuff Mystery Men.
Gunn, for all his success with Marvel and now, presumably DC, is – heart and soul – a b-movie director; a man with low rent sensibilities. The Suicide Squad allows him to indulge them and he goes for broke, painting the opening title in floating blood and brain matter – mainstreaming a level of sadism and cynicism once the province of no-budget horror movies and straight-to-video schlock. Warner Bros. summer tentpole is glib, nihilistic and not suitable for children. It is, in short, an orthodoxy-bending, quadrant closing leap of faith for a studio that was so concerned about the tone and content of the last Suicide Squad picture they hired a company that cut trailers to ruin it.
DC fans will love Gunn’s film. They’ll revel in its deadpan approach and evocation of old war movies. They’ll note Gunn’s propensity to rework old tropes – like rescuing an American from a group of South American mercenaries, and astronauts finding a creature in space – to produce set ups for decent rug pulling jokes. They’ll like his tendency to play with non-linear bits of narrative to achieve similar effects. They’ll appreciate a big studio film with a distinctive voice behind the camera. But will they also note that the price they pay for this minor cinematic miracle is a movie with no soul?
Ayer, at least, had ambitions to make a film with a dramatic spine – a semi-serious piece. What’s Gunn’s ambition? The Suicide Squad is uncompromised in conception but it’s an empty piece of storytelling. Idris Elba’s daughter hating her father in Act One only to take pride in his world saving exploits in Act Three, using the hoary old device of news footage on the living room TV, is the closest we get to a human moment. There are other attempts, though not many. Most are too tongue in cheek to register. The Suicide Squad has a nice line in morbid malarkey, but that’s all it has.
The effect is numbing over 132 minutes. The potential of the characters feels played out long before then. Gunn keeps the film alive with bizzarro story elements, high-energy setpieces and a refreshing lack of sentimentality – it’s the kind of superhero film the internet always says it wants. So why doesn’t it feel more subversive? Perhaps because the addition of swearing, full-frontal male nudity and the sight of an anthropomorphised shark tearing a man in half (lengthways) can’t hide the familiarity of the template onto which it’s all been grafted. Superhero movies are so last decade. James Gunn has spiced the broth but it’s still thin and no substitute for a decent meal.
Ed’s Novel, “Murder by the Bottle” is out now. Order it here. It’s the least you can do.