Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Rated R. 109 Minutes. Written by Christina Hodson; Directed by Cathly Yan
Starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, Jumee Smollett-Bell, Ewan McGregor, Ella Jay Basco.
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If there is one golden light to come from the cinematic trash fire that was 2016’s Suicide Squad, it was Margot Robbie as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn. While she made a splash for many in Martin Scorcese’s Wolf of Wall Street (2013) after the quickly canceled Pan Am in 2011 and a three year run on her native Australia’s soap opera Neighbors, Suicide Squad made Robbie a household name with her scene-stealing, energetic performance. A far cry from her much-loathed partner in crime Jared Leto’s Joker in the same film.
No worries, while Leto’s Joker is mentioned, he’s nowhere to be seen. He’s even replaced by a traditional comic version of the Clown Prince of Crime in the animated sequence that gives Quinn’s backstory and opens Birds of Prey, or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. (not writing that out each time. I’m not Dickens and thus not paid by the word – am I supposed to be paying myself?). Would have been even more insulting to Leto to have flashbacks with Joaquin Phoenix’s of the Oscar nominated Joker (I still don’t get the love).
It was quickly announced after Suicide Squad that Robbie was to head up her own film, separating her character from the ilk surrounding her. It’s no surprise, as she ran away with that film – in the same way Wonder Woman stole Batman v Superman from its titular characters. Some ideas came and went, including Gotham City Sirens, but ultimately, Birds of Prey is the result. It’s everything Suicide Squad tried and failed to be: a fun ensemble action film, with varied fun characters, a sense of insane joy, wonderful action, and just an all around awesome time at the movies.
Birds of Prey finds Harley not long after her latest, and permanent, break up with Joker (aka Mr. J aka Puddin’). She’s not taking it well, as a she wonders through Gotham a broken, drunk mess; mostly at club of villain Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), a man who hates her but knows he can’t touch her. After blowing up the chemical factor that created both her and Joker’s dyed skin and increased madness, it becomes well aware she is no longer under the protection of Joker’s clout. This is a problem for Quinn. As she is an unhinged lunatic with poor impulse control and generally an asshole (as many characters point out), this aims everyone with a grievance for her directly at her with a vengeance.
This sets off a detailed and often convoluted plot of revenge in many directions, a stolen diamond, a manhunt for a thieving teenager, face-degloving, roller-skates, glitter-shots, and bountiful sets of action. Yeah, there are a lot of McGuffins and misdirects, and Harley tells the story out of order as things occur to her. It’s fine, just go along with it for the diamond stuff – it’s all told winky and satirizing it all anyway. The scattershot order matches Harley’s scatterbrain. It’s fitting.
What it boils down to is Black Mask and underling Mr. Zsasz (Chris Messina) are looking to hurt/maim/kill Harley, Dectetive Renee Monyoya (Rosie Perez), Helan Bertinelli aka
The Cross-Bow Killer The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) for a variety of reasons. Each of these character’s stories twist in and out of each other’s until it the women have to team up to take down the men.
Each of these performers are perfect for their characters. If she wasn’t four-years-old when Harley Quinn was made, I’d swear Paul Dini and Bruce Timm created Quinn for Robbie. She embodies the former side-kick as she explores what’s going on in her head and all-sides coming at her. Such a brass, loud, manic, head-friend character could be incredibly annoying in the wrong hands, but she gets it – straddling the line of likable asshole. She’s endearing but you never forget she is a nasty person (and she knows it too). You do feel for her… that poor Egg Sandwich….
Winstead plays the social-awkward Huntress for many great laughs when she eventually interacts with everyone else, and Perez is an underappreciated actress, so it’s good to see her in something so big. Everyone’s chemistry flows and leads to many awesome moments in a very funny flick.
This is the Birds of Prey and Harley Quinn’s story, but let’s talk about the villains. Ewan McGregor relishes in the chance to play over-the-top with a zeal that leaves no scenery left for Robbie to chew (the film is very camp so it’s a surprise anything of the gorgeous production design is left standing). Ol’ Ewan is so god-damned entertaining, but also deliciously evil with his penchant for face-de-gloving and other assorted nastiness (although a moment of sexual assault takes the air out of the room). Unfortunately, he does become a standard villain for the climax. But at that point, the third act is fully the Bird’s show and keeps focus on them. Messina as Victor Zsasz is a quieter but also deliciously menacing henchman. This is a movie of people stealing the scenes from each other.
Birds of Prey also works as an explosive action-flick. The many action sequences are incredibly well-choreographed and performed. John Wick good. It’s no surprise as John Wick director and long-time fight choreographer Chad Stahelski designed Birds of Prey’s clever and thrilling fights. They move with a musical-beat that is a ton of fun. It would be remiss not to mention Jay Cassidy & Evan Shiff’s editing to build that flow. The film flies by, purposely never settling in a groove that when we reach the third act it’s a little of a surprise until you think about it and realize “yeah, it has been an hour and half, hrm.”
People are going to make Captain Marvel comparisons – both woman led and written/directed (or co- in Marvel). I’ve purposely steered away from that direct, let’s not pit them against each other as if there can only be a few woman-centric action-superhero flicks. Celebrate them all! But this is a much better film on every level. Anyone who shat on Captain Marvel for being safe and formulaic will have no say here. Birds of Prey is far less on the nose when it comes to girl-power (No Doubt sound cue or that moment in Endgame) and it’s stronger for it.
Really, the more apt comparison is Deadpool. The non-linear narrative, coupled with fourth-wall story-deconstruction, a good bucket of blood, and an expletive-laced script, there is a lot of Deadpool’s DNA in the chemical bath Harley jumped into.
Birds of Prey, or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn could have been a god-awful, dour mess like it’s Quinn predecessor. But thankfully it’s not.It’s a joy from beginning to end, moving through a multitude of well-made action sequences with anarchistic glee. It has a wonderful sense of fun and character, held up with gorgeous production and costuming design.
Birds of Prey is a film of ass-kicking emancipation, of pushing off the shackles that have kept all of these women, not just Harley, down whether it be abusive partners, lecherous business owners, co-workers who steal the credit, or any other figure keeping up the patriarchy. Of an empowering fighting back in a day-glo haze of mirthful violence.
I want more and cannot wait for the sequel to see these women continue bicker, and blow-shit up. And more Bruce the Hyena!
PS I SWEAR I saw a guy at the Black Mask club wearing a question mark covered jacket. Did anyone else see him? I could be wrong.
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