Review: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Director: Cathy Yan

Stars: Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco

What to do about comic book movies? They’re not going anywhere, at least not for the foreseeable. It’s in vogue right now for ‘highbrow’ directors to vocally shit-talk them, and these comments are not without merit. These flicks are largely very similar to one another, most play it safe, offering few surprises, and they dominate the multiplexes, squeezing out opportunities for smaller and arguably worthier pictures.

Yet to dismiss them outright ignores the fact that they do huge business – people want them – and said dependability is part of that appeal. If I were asked to take sides in the argument, I’d tend toward the position of your Scorseses and Tarantinos… but I also don’t see the value in denying people their enjoyment. Can’t we find a middle ground?

Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn offers a possible solution…

Following on quite awkwardly from David Ayer’s colossal misfire Suicide Squad, Cathy Yan’s colourful flick is, at its heart, a break-up movie. Flinging the boot squarely into Jared Leto’s crotch at every possible opportunity, it is so over Joker*. But, like anyone newly wrenched from a co-dependent relationship, it’s also a little bit obsessed.

Margot Robbie (also chief producer) is back as Harley Quinn, now on her lonesome following a split from Mr. J. Birds of Prey charts her struggle to get back on her feet and find  independence… just as it’s delightfully cumbersome title suggests. But there are other heartbreaks to be seen.

See Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), whose efforts to thwart doolally kingpin Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) cost her dearly at the GCPD, where her partner has already betrayed her… See Sionis’ nightclub singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), disheartened from her loyalty having been so often taken for granted… See also a mysterious new assassin in town who has earned herself the name The Crossbow Killer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead); a woman reconciling a lot of childhood trauma with a warpath of vengeance. Everywhere you look there are women damned by the past or the present, looking to redefine themselves in a world that has assumed their value and rejected them.

Birds of Prey gets off to a messy start, talking its way out from under Suicide Squad to eke out its own identity, and skipping back and forth along a timeline with the kind of speed liable to confuse your average Academy Awards voter. The canny script from Christina Hodson acknowledges the necessary evils of such clumsiness, playing it into the endearingly ramshackle persona of Harley Quinn.

The plot is kind of awful. We’re handed a not-especially-inspired riff on the ol’ Swallowed McGuffin routine; this time a prize diamond gulped down by teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Possessive Sionis puts a bounty on the kid’s head, and Harley (marked for death herself) intends to collect. The gears grind loudly as Birds of Prey works hard to align its very disparate characters. But once it does, my does it become some anarchic fun.

Yan’s flick may be scrappy, but its also cine-literate and extremely charismatic. Favouring superb stunt-work over CGI soup, she has clearly done her homework with the John Wick and Mad Max films for the impressively choreographed fight sequences. They are defined by their slapstick humour and, importantly, geographic consciousness. You’ll not be confused or bored whenever these women throw down.

But there are other, diverse references to cinema history thrown into this garish blender, as far reaching as Gentlemen Prefer BlondesCarnival of Souls and even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Tonally, there’s a certain queasiness that one senses is entirely intentionally, reflecting the addled mental state of Ms. Quinn. It lands for the most part somewhere between the bratty behaviour of Deadpool and the cigar smoke coils of Sin City. Of course, Gotham has always been deeply indebted to film noir, but it hasn’t been painted quite this kookily in live action since Tim Burton’s days.

Production designer K.K. Barrett can take a lion’s share of the credit in that regard, with a crazed fun-house in the third act representing a particular highlight. Similarly, hair and wardrobe have stepped up to ensure that legions of cosplayers have some great new designs to get to work on.

In technical terms, Birds of Prey bristles with accomplishments. So much so that the unevenness in the cast announces itself a little loudly. Robbie’s Harley shtick remains just the right side of delightful, but there’s a touch of 90’s Jim Carrey about it that’s getting a little weary. Ewan McGregor, meanwhile, is seriously miscast as Sionis; consistently upstaged by the far-better Chris Messina as his slimy henchman Victor Zsasz. Thanks to its sometimes cumbersome structure, it seems for a while as though Birds of Prey has no idea what to do with Mary Elizabeth Winstead… then she wholesale steals the third act out from under everyone else.

This lurching sense of inconsistency is largely forgiven thanks to Yan’s behind-camera confidence in her project. There’s a line in here somewhere, thrown away by Harley, about how you get a boy’s attention with violence. Birds of Prey uses the trappings of ‘bro-cinema’ to placate male fanboys (the garish colour-palette of Fight Club, the brutal action of Oldboy), only to sneak them a cracking feminist flick (not that these things ought to be thought of as mutually exclusive), and not once does it stoop to the awkward pandering that’s become a stumbling block for similarly inclined franchise pieces.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying Birds of Prey wins because it feels as though it has a voice of its own. Rather than fitting neatly into a carefully strategised master plan, this is a comic book movie that’s fallen out of the club drunk and is hungry for a greasy egg sandwich.

How do you solve the superhero movie problem? Allow these movies their own personalities, that’s how. Filling them with great, fallible female characters also seems to help.

 

 

*hard relate on that score…

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