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‘The Suicide Squad’ is the colossal monster movie James Gunn was born to make

From left, Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag, John Cena as Peacemaker, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Peter Capaldi as the Thinker and Idris Elba as Bloodsport in “The Suicide Squad.” (Jessica Miglio/DC Comics/Warner Bros. Pictures)
(2.5 stars)

Grimy, cynical and exhausting, James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad” taps our collective anxiety about everything and saves the world with plenty of explosive gore. You’ll just want to take a bath after it’s over.

As suits a blockbuster filmmaker who began his career with such low-budget gross-outs as “Tromeo and Juliet” and moved on to Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” this 132-minute product plays like a 90-minute late-night creature feature bloated to big-budget excess. But underneath the muck and star power, there’s a heart, however mistrustful of authority it may be in a world gone mad.

Based on the villainous DC Comics team, Gunn’s film essentially reboots David Ayer’s 2016 “Suicide Squad” using some of the same cast (though most of the returning talent is disposed of quickly). Gunn ramps up the carnage with a cadre of convicts recruited by mysterious U.S. government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, a 2016 holdover).

Pulled out of prison to take on a top-secret mission, this anti-hero sideshow includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, also reprising her 2016 role), a deadly beauty in clown makeup; Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a killing machine who claims he doesn’t have any good in him but doesn’t want his daughter (Storm Reid) to end up in jail like her dad; and Peacemaker (John Cena), a Machiavellian brute happy to use his all-American power to save the world, even if it means killing countless men, women and children.

2016 review: ‘Suicide Squad’ is as bad as you’ve heard

These mercenaries are charged with destroying the mysterious Starfish project, which threatens to control the minds of everyone on the politically volatile island of Corto Maltese. But does this American intervention come with ulterior motives?

The ensemble cast largely rises to the chaotic challenge, with Elba’s reliable charisma grounding the action and Sylvester Stallone doing all he can as the voice of Nanaue, a dumb humanoid shark. Still, with highly flawed heroes like these, it’s no wonder that CGI vermin such as Weasel (Sean Gunn) and an army of rodents controlled by Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) are more endearing than most of the humans.

What drags this “Squad” down to the dreary level of Ayer’s vision is the tone of Gunn’s film, which is more violent and less lighthearted than his “Guardians” movies. Despite needle-drops from Johnny Cash and Louis Prima, among others, the soundtrack doesn’t play like the mix tape that helped make that franchise so entertaining. And while the squad cracks jokes, the humor is dark and bloody, just like his cruel charges.

All this starts with promising energy, but Gunn’s script slogs through most of a dreary midsection. Still, by the final act it turns into the colossal monster movie Gunn was born to make, with oddly resonant spectacles that seem to refer to 9/11 (a falling tower) and the coronavirus (“Cover your face!”).

That may be too much trauma for some viewers to deal with right now. Even if the world is saved, it seems to come at the cost of innocence: Are superhuman criminals our only hope against such evil? If that seems like a suicidal prospect, that suits this bleak franchise, and “The Suicide Squad,” however pessimistic, scratches a thrilling midnight movie itch.

R. At area theaters; also available on HBO Max. Contains strong violence and gore, crude language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity. 132 minutes.