The Guardians of the Galaxy director fully leans into midnight-movie camp.

The first rule of The Suicide Squad is: Do not talk about Suicide Squad. James Gunn's slick, hectic follow-up to the lucrative but widely maligned 2016 original — it made nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars, though no one seemed to walk away happy — is billed not as a sequel or a reboot but a sort of full amnesiac do-over. Instead of acknowledging its almost identically titled predecessor, the new installment simply sheds all memory of it, like a bad Tinder date or a vestigial tail — even as it retains the mythology, most of the characters, and the general pandemonium of its original premise.

Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) is given sole credit as writer and director, and there's a sense that this Suicide is as much a part of his own extended universe as the DC one. The movie (in theaters and on HBO Max Aug. 5) comes heavily larded with winky Easter eggs and Guardians alumni like Michael Rooker, who stalks through the opening scenes as a snowy-haired hacker whose mission, should he choose to accept it (he will), is to infiltrate the fictional South American island of Corto Maltese and destroy an experimental laboratory deemed a danger to national security by the U.S. government. In exchange he'll get to shave 10 years off his prison sentence, or die trying.

Is it suspicious that the rest of his supposedly elite cadre of criminal masterminds — which includes SS1 alumni Jai Courtney's Captain Boomerang and Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn along with lesser lights like Pete Davidson, Nathan Fillion, and a mute, Seussical-looking creature called Weasel — appears, as a squad, to be strictly junior varsity? Maybe; there are at least a couple stronger candidates waiting to fill the movie-star-shaped hole left behind by Will Smith's absent Deadshot, including Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and the Peacemaker (John Cena) — though it's Elba's veteran assassin who is eventually deemed team leader, largely against his will, by the program's unyielding boss, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, far more committed than she probably needs to be).

The Suicide Squad
'The Suicide Squad'
| Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

There's also field agent Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman); a Portuguese street urchin named Cleo (Daniela Melchoir), who can control rodents; a high-strung hanger-on (David Dastmalchian) whose primary-colored rage rashes turn his body into a polka-dotted agent of death; and a beefy CG shark-man, Nanaue, voiced with monosyllabic meathead longing by Sylvester Stallone. Only Harley Quinn can claim to have a standalone franchise spin-off in the past five years, and so Robbie gets her own story line for much of this movie too: a nihilist Betty Boop wreaking sunny, gum-snapping havoc in the palaces and power rooms of Corto Maltese while her co-conspirators creep in the shadows.

In last year's Birds of Prey, Quinn's homicidal tendencies were a clearly marked but mostly cartoonish add-on. Here, Gunn seems to revel in the squishy viscera of it all, earning his hard-R rating again and again with a kind of casual brutality that treats collateral damage like a bonus, not a bug; why merely kill a man when you can rip him in half sideways, then watch his spinal cord waft in the breeze? Or allow the mad-scientist villain (Dr. Who alum Peter Capaldi, his scalp stippled with little pegs like a human Lite-Brite) to carry out his ugly experiments on thousands of (literally) faceless South American citizens?

The script, accordingly, herks and jerks along with a sort of forced-festive glee, its mounting body count buffeted by goofball banter and pounding soundtrack cues. A good half of the jokes don't land, but unlike his predecessor's joyless slog, Gunn's version at least celebrates the nonsense — happily swerving into random character moments and stylistic pieces of flare, like the spray of animated flower petals that flutter behind Harley like a Disney-princess bouquet as she takes on a flank of would-be killers.

By the psychedelic finale — whose stompy shenanigans fall somewhere between Godzilla and Ghostbusters on the jumbo scale — Gunn is fully leaning into midnight-movie camp, and subdividing his motley crew of antiheroes into Bad and Better. Those endgame loyalty tests (and the inevitable post-credits scene that follows) do the groundwork of setting up a sequel, if another one should be deemed worthy. Unless of course they choose, as it now a Suicide prerogative to do, to wipe the slate entirely and start again. Grade: C+

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