Like Suicide Squad (2016), the movie from which it has been spun off, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn starts off with great gusto and energy, literally willing us to get onboard with its maniacal take comic book antiheroism before becoming something decidedly more conventional-and even a bit sentimental-in its second half. Suicide Squad took more than its share of critical and commercial lumps, with a lot of criticism being directed at Warner Bros. and DC's decision to keep the mayhem at a commercially viable PG-13 level. Birds of Prey has no such restrictions and instead revels in its R-ratedness, although what that mostly allows is harsher language and one slightly gory sequence in which a family has their faces cut off while being strung upside down.
But don't let that scare you. Birds of Prey is mostly comical in its cracked ambitions, which makes the whole face-removing scene feel even more out of place, now that I think about it. But, no matter: Those looking for a wild romp will certainly find it here, which is made all the more intriguing by the fact that this is an almost exclusively female wild romp. While comic book movies tend to be an exclusive boys' club, with the occasional female secondary character or villainess to contend with, Birds of Prey wears its feminine bona-fides loudly and proudly both in front of and behind the camera. Not only are all of the main characters women, but so is the director, Cathy Yan (whose only other feature is the Chinese-language dramedy Dead Pigs), and the screenwriter, Christina Hodson (who last wrote Bumblebee, the one watchable Transformers movie). The fact that most of the characters are also people of color makes Birds of Prey a glorious outlier in the Hollywood mainstream, and for that alone it deserves plenty of credit. The film itself doesn't quite live up to its hype or its ambitions, but it is still a mostly diverting good time, albeit one whose volume-cranking and relentless need to stay busy becomes a bit wearisome by the end.
Reprising her role as psychiatrist-turned-psycho villain Harley Quinn, Margot Robbie takes center stage and commands every frame of the film with sheer bravado. Quinn isn't really much of a character-she's more of a jumbled mess of contradictory constructs-but Robbie does her thing with such gusto and wild abandon that you can't help but admire her wide-eyed, leering commitment. Robbie was the breakout star of Suicide Squad four years ago, so it's not much of a surprise that DC gave her a starring role, even if the comic book series on which the movie is based does not prominently feature her character.
Things have changed since we last saw Quinn escaping at end of Suicide Squad with her crazed paramour, the Joker (who is also the person who turned her from a respectable medical professional into a candy-colored criminal vixen). The Joker, alas, is nowhere to be found because, as Quinn informs us at the beginning of the film in her squawking voice-over, she and the Joker (or Mr. J, as she calls him) have broken up, which leaves her emotionally devastated but also physically vulnerable, because all of criminals and psychopaths she crossed as the Joker's girlfriend are now coming back to haunt her and without his protection. In its own warped way, Birds of Prey is a consummate break-up movie about the difficulty of asserting one's individuality after being known primarily as one-half of a couple. Despite her outr outward appearance, Harley Quinn is actually pretty insecure, and much of the film's action is to the benefit of her, as the title tells us, emancipation.
Along the way she connects with a rowdy assortment of other women warriors who refuse to be put into corners: Dinah Lance, also known as Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who reluctantly works for the film's villain, an ostentatious organized crime lord named Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor); Helena Bertinelli, also known as The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a motorcycle-riding assassin who is offing high-profile gangsters left and right to avenge the massacre of her family two decades earlier; and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a police detective who knows what she is doing, but is constantly dismissed by the egotistical men around her, including the police captain who earned his post by taking credit for her work. Harley ends up protecting a teen girl named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who makes the mistake of picking the pocket of Roman's sadistic righthand man Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), which puts her in possession of a large diamond that has encoded into its structure numbers that will open a massive bank account. Harley is not really the maternal sort, but she ends up bonding with Cassandra over their shared alienation, and pretty soon Black Canary, The Huntress, and Montoya are on-board, as well, forming a last-minute vigilante group that has to take on Roman and his minions to protect Cassandra.
Yan follows the path established by David Ayer, Tim Miller, and James Gunn-comic-book-movie predecessors who have worked with more outlandish material by cranking up the volume at every turn both aurally and visually. She throws in every trick imaginable, starting the movie with crude animation and then launching us into a Technicolor-hued netherworld of wildly exaggerated action and larger-than-life characters (sometimes you worry that the actors might accidentally bite each other while chewing up the scenery). McGregor seems to be having a grand old time playing Roman, but he is ultimately a rather rote villain with nothing memorable about him beyond his trendy high-end clothes. Rosie Perez has the largely thankless job of playing the most grounded character, but she gives the middle-aged Montoya enough tenacity and wit to hold her own in the end. Of course, no one can really hold a candle (nor do they try) to Robbie's Harley Quinn, who is her own force of nature, whether she's roller-skating behind a speeding car, bashing bad guys with a giant mallet, or feeding her post-break-up depression with mouthfuls of Cheez-Whiz.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Warner Bros. / DC
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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