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THE SUICIDE SQUAD: 3 ½ STARS. “equal parts silly and serious.”

The difference between the 2017 “Suicide Squad” film starring Will Smith and this weekend’s sequel, “The Suicide Squad,” goes far beyond adding the definite article to the title. I accused the first film of “trying to echo the very movies it should be an antidote to.” You know, the self-important, self-absorbed superhero blockbusters that forgot to unpack the fun along with the story. “The Suicide Squad,” now playing in theatres, has some social commentary but it doesn’t forget the fun. Or the violence, daddy issues or anthropomorphic weasel.

There’s a lot happening in “The Suicide Squad.”

At the beginning of the non-stop 132-minute rollercoaster ride, cold-blooded government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) offers a selection of the world’s worst criminals a deal. the Join Task Force X, a.k.a. the Suicide Squad, work for her and, and in exchange she’ll reduce their sentences at the notorious Belle Reve prison. Stray outside the job, however, and a chip inserted at the base of their skull will be detonated, ending the mission forever.

Signing on for the mission to invade the (fictional) South American republic of Corto Maltese and steal and destroy a piece of alien technology from evil scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), are a motley crew of supervillains.

There’s assassin Bloodsport (Idris Elba), patriotic vigilante Peacemaker (John Cena) who will kill anything or anyone in the name of peace, the neurotic “experiment gone wrong” Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), the dumb-as-a-stump fish-human hybrid Prince Nanaue (Sylvester Stallone), the rodent loving thief Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), the unhinged Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), crazed criminal and former psychiatrist Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and field leader Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman).

Add to that TDK (Nathan Fillion), Weasel (Sean Gunn), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), Javelin (Flula Borg), Mongal (Mayling Ng) and Savant (Michael Rooker), and you have a dysfunctional “Brady Bunch” charged with saving the world, if a giant, telepathic alien starfish doesn’t get them first.

“The Suicide Squad” has many of the same features as a Marvel movie. The world is at stake, there’s an alien lifeform causing trouble, there’s villains and a team of outsiders with special skills who fight back. They may look the same on paper, and share blockbuster budgets, but DCEU’s “The Suicide Squad” is seedier; a sister from a different mister.

The kills are squishier and bloodier than anything seen in “The Avengers.” The sense of humour is more juvenile than “Thor: Ragnarok” and you’re not likely to find a cute rat with a backpack in “Black Widow.”

James Gunn has not forgotten his schlocky Troma Films roots. His resume includes a screenwriting credit for “Tromeo and Juliet,” and “The Suicide Squad” pays homage to “The Toxic Avenger.” That sensibility helps define the new Squad movie’s most memorable bits but Gunn also tempers the gross stuff with a certain kind of sweetness and some not-so-subtle social commentary.

When the characters aren’t in motion, kicking, shooting, punching, gouging or stabbing, they often engage in character work, explaining how and why life pushed them toward joining this unorthodox team. The stories are dysfunctional—being trapped in a box with live, hungry rats is the stuff of nightmares—but they create a bond between the Squad that is unexpected in a movie that, in the beginning anyway, values brutality more than empathy.

Built into the story of an invasion of another country are questions of US foreign policy and military integrity. Casting the likable John Cena as Peacemaker, a “hero” willing to do anything to protect his perceived ideology, is subversively brilliant. When one Squad member snarls, “Peacemaker… what a joke,” the line drips with meaning.

But don’t get the idea that “The Suicide Squad” has fallen prey to the foibles of the self-serious 2017 version. Gunn brings enough fun and absurd action to make the sonic overload of the second kick at the can equal parts silly and serious.

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