Josh Reviews Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Despite my having a very negative opinion of most of the recent DC/Warner Brothers films, including the dreadful Suicide Squad (which is where Margot Robbie’s version of Harley Quinn first appeared), I was interested in seeing Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. I loved that audacious title, I was impressed by the strong mostly-female cast they’d assembled, and I thought the trailers looked promising. But I didn’t manage to find time to get to a theater during the film’s first few weeks of theatrical release, and then the COVID pandemic rendered all thought of going to a movie theatre an impossibility for me. I did, though, recently get a chance to watch Birds of Prey on blu-ray, and I was delighted! I thought the film was terrific fun; a ripping adventure yarn with a pleasingly loose, tongue-in-cheek tone. This film deserves to be seen by a wider audience!
Birds of Prey picks up Harley Quinn’s story a ways after Suicide Squad, after getting abandoned by the Joker. At first depressed, Harley begins to see the upside of beginning a new life out from under the Joker’s thumb. However, she quickly discovers that she also no longer has the protection that being the Joker’s girlfriend afforded her, thus now making her fair game for any criminal or lowlife she has ever pissed off. Harley’s story soon intersects with that of several other powerful women: G.C.P.D. detective Renee Montoya; Dinah Lance, singer and driver for the crime lord Roman Sionis; young pickpocket Cassandra Cain; and Helena Bertinelli, the Huntress, who has made it her life’s mission to hunt down and kill every gangster who was involved with her family’s murder.
Writer Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yan have created a very entertaining and original film. It’s fantastic to see two women at the helm of this female-focused film, and both Ms. Hodson and Ms. Yan demonstrate their tremendous skill in spades. I hope they both have long careers ahead of them. Birds of Prey has a sense of style and tone that is unique among the DC/Warner Brothers films of recent years. It is the tone that is the most critical, as this is an intense and serious and very adult film that is also a lot of fun and playfully loose. Many films try and fail to strike that balance, but Ms. Yan and Ms. Hodson make it look easy.
Birds of Prey demonstrates a wonderfully playful attitude throughout, beginning with the funny and irreverent animated opening sequence. I knew I was in for a fun ride after seeing that opening! Birds of Prey is structured to bring the audience into Harley Quinn’s loopy and off-kilter mindset. The narrative is fractured as we experience events through Harley’s somewhat stream-of-consciousness narration. In a clever touch, we peek into Harley’s mind through a variety of silly on-screen chirons and graphics, such as the listing of various characters’ grievances against Harley. I particularly loved the Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend imaginary dance number happening inside Harley’s head when she’s getting smacked around by some bad guys.
Harley Quinn was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for Batman: The Animated Series, and she was an immediate break-out. Voiced by Arleen Sorkin, Harley was a phenomenal character right from minute one. I was excited to see her brought to life in live-action in Suicide Squad, and Margot Robbie’s near-perfect depiction of Harley was by far the best aspect of that otherwise extremely disappointing film for me. I was happy to hear that Ms. Robbie didn’t want to let this character go, and I’m impressed and happy that she used her star-power to push the development of this Harley-focused sequel (and that she chose to surround herself and Harley with so many fantastic women, both on-screen and off). It’s a delight to see Harley get the spotlight she deserves in this film, and I was extremely taken with Ms. Robbie’s performance. She fully inhabits Harley, and embraces her craziness and her attitude. The film also keeps Harley just on the right side of the border that allows her to be sympathetic and a character we want to follow, and root for, in her own film, without shaving off too many of the rough edges that make the character interesting. (That’s the key mistake that most previous spin-off stories based on a villain, in film or comics, have made, and one that I was very thankful this film side-stepped.) Margot Robbie is a movie-star, full stop, and I found her to be tremendous fun to watch. She’s the main reason this film works as well as it does.
Ms. Robbie is ably assisted by a spectacular supporting cast! Jurnee Smollett-Bell is great as Dinah Lance. Dinah is the super-heroine Black Canary in the DC Comics, and the film does depict her super-powers, though that doesn’t really enter the story until the end. (For the most part, Birds of Prey is consistent in being a very ground-level film, with very few super-powers on display, and not a single super-hero or villain costume anywhere to be seen.) Rather than focusing on Dinah’s super-powers, the film develops her as a tough, brave, take-no-nonsense young woman who is living in the middle of a world of crime and shady characters, but who somehow still seems to have some sort of moral code. This is great, and Ms. Smollett-Bell’s movie-star-level charisma shines through the screen. (And I’m delighted that the film doesn’t ignore her comic book super-powers, and that her abilities are incorporated into the film before the end!)
Rosie Perez (Do The Right Thing) plays Gotham City detective Renee Montoya. I don’t know what thrills me more: seeing the wonderful Ms. Perez playing a bad-ass lady in a super-hero movie like this, or seeing the wonderful character of Renee Montoya (who was first introduced, like Harley Quinn, in Batman: The Animated Series, and who was then extremely well-developed in the Batman comics of the aughts, particularly in Detective Comics and Gotham Central when written by Greg Rucka). Let’s just say that I am very happy about both developments! Ms. Perez plays Montoya quite differently from how I’d expected, but nevertheless I throughly enjoyed her take on Montoya, and her energy and gravitas. She’s a great member of this ensemble of women. (I only wish they they didn’t show Montoya leaving the force at the end. Even though the comics have taken the character in many different weird and wild directions, to me, she is iconically a Gotham City detective, and if we ever see her again on-screen — which I very much hope we will — I don’t want her to stray too far from that.)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Death Proof; Scott Pilgrim vs. the World; 10 Cloverfield Lane) plays Helena Bertinelli (who is the vigilante the Huntress in the comics). Ms. Winstead plays Helena almost like she is the star of an entirely different movie, one that only occasionally intersects with the Harley Quinn movie we’re watching, and it’s a great choice. I like the way she plays Helena with a weird awkwardness; it makes sense for someone who hadn’t known much in her life other than death and violence. She’s also able to kick all the ass that this character should be kicking; the stunts and action are great.
Ella Jay Basco plays Cassandra Cain, a young pickpocket who winds up involved in the circle of madness surrounding Harley Quinn and whom Harley ultimately, somewhat begrudgingly, takes under her wing. Cassandra Cain is a very different character in the comics (a mute assassin who, for a time, becomes Batgirl); there’s not too much of the comic book version of Cassandra here other than her name. Still, it’s fun to see Cassandra Cain on-screen (this is not a character I’d ever expected to make it into a live action movie), and I like the street-tough but still somewhat naive young woman who Ms. Basco has brought to life.
Ewan McGreggor is dynamite as the villainous Roman Sionis. In the comics, Roman is the crime-lord/super-villain The Black Mask. That aspect of Roman’s identity is incorporated into the film, but as with all the other characters, the filmmakers wisely kept Roman grounded as a human (rather than super-human) villain. Mr. McGreggor depicts Roman as a spoiled, ego-centric night-club owner, whose psychopathic tendencies slowly reveal themselves as the film unfolds. This is a great choice, and Mr. McGreggor is enormous fun as the crazy-cakes Roman. Mr. McGreggor goes big with his performance — he gleefully chews a lot of scenery — but he and director Cathy Yan are careful to keep Roman’s villainy at a human-scale level, this making Roman a scary and dangerous foil for Harley & co. without destroying the grounded tone of the overall film. (In the comics, the Black Mask is usually depicted with a skull-like face, a head with no skin. Here in the film, they keep Sionis looking completely human, but they show that he is occasionally open to cutting OTHER people’s faces off. It’s still gross and over-the-top, but not as super-villain outlandish as being a guy with a skull head.)
Ms. Yan and her team are equally as successful in striking this balance in their depiction of Roman’s henchman, Victor Zsasz, played by Chris Messina (The Newsroom, The Mindy Project, Argo). In the comics, Zsasz is a mass-murdering super-villain who regularly fights Batman. But Ms. Yan, and Mr. Messina, keep Zsasz grounded, while at the same time still allowing him to be 1) dangerous and 2) funny. (As with Black Mask, who only actually dons a Black Mask towards the end of the film, they keep Zsasz looking like a normal dude for most of the movie. It’s only towards the end that we see his self-scarring which is the character’s iconic look in the comics. It’s a smart choice.)
I also enjoyed seeing comedian Ali Wong as Montoya’s former girlfriend and current Gotham City district attorney, Ellen Yee (though I wish Ms. Wong had more to do in the film); François Chau (Lost, The Tick) as one of Sionis’ crime-lord rivals; and Steven Webber (Mr. X from The X-Files, who also recently appeared on season 1 of Stumptown) as Montoya’s jerk of a boss at the GCPD.
Look, Birds of Prey is not any sort of genius reinvention of a super-hero movie. It doesn’t approach the greatness of so many of the past few years’ Marvel Studios films. But it’s great! I thought it was a hoot; a thoroughly enjoyable romp filled with terrific characters and some fun action set-pieces. Cathy Yan did a terrific job at the helm. I love how she and her collaborators were able to take Margot Robbie’s great character-work from the otherwise disappointing Suicide Squad and put her into a far-stronger film that allowed Ms. Robbie — and all the other wonderful women on screen — to really shine. I love how Ms. Yan and Ms. Robbie were able to make Harley Quinn — and all the other women — sexy without being male-gaze sexualized. I love how they were able to develop Harley and other villain characters to give them dimensionality, and allow us to root for them, without removing all the sharp edges that make them interesting as characters. I love how beautiful the film looks, with iconic set-design and costumes that are outlandish while still being plausible, and action that is cool and exciting but also clear and easy to follow. Birds of Prey is a film that is 100% for adults while also being fun and irreverent as opposed to overly-dour and juvenile in its attempts at sophistication. It’s everything Suicide Squad should have been, and also what so many of the other recent DC/Warner Brothers films have clearly been aiming for. I’m sorry I missed seeing this on the big screen, but I’m very glad that I caught up to it. I wish the film had been a bigger success. Margot Robbie will, I believe, be reprising her role as Harley Quinn in James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy)’s Suicide Squad sequel, coming next year; I hope Mr. Gunn is able to do as right by Ms. Robbie (and Ms. Harleen Quinzel) as Cathy Yan and Christina Hodson did, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing what Ms. Yan and Ms. Hodson do next.
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