Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/06/20 15:33:01
(Worth A Look)
“Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” the latest entry in the DC Comics cinematic universe, is a film that has been made with an abundance of style and energy, a certain degree of wit and an undeniably charismatic performance from Margot Robbie at its center. That is good since those elements have to pick up the slack for the items that haven’t quite made the scene here, such as a coherent and compelling storyline or a compelling bad guy. The end result is a film that is not nearly and transgressive or anarchistic as it clearly thinks it is but which still packs enough charm and gleefully brutal go-girl insouciance to make for a reasonably winning entertainment, especially in comparison to the painfully self-serious bullshit of the absurdly overblownFor those who are not versed in comic book lore and either never saw or have blessedly forgotten “Suicide Squad,” the 2016 monstrosity that this has been spun off from, the focus here is on one Harley Quinn (Robbie), a one-time psychologist who made the mistake of falling in love with her most notorious patient, the Joker, and becoming his moll in a relationship that began with her plunging herself into chemicals as a way of proving her devotion and then somehow managed to grow even more toxic. As the film opens, however, the two have just broken up and while Harley at first acts as if nothing has changed between them, she is finally inspired one night to announce to the world that they are no longer a couple and that she is now a free and independent woman. (Suffice it to say, this method of announcement involves some very large explosions.) In what must be a first in the history of impulsive, alcohol-fueled decisions, this proclamation proves to have one considerable downside—now that she is no longer with the Joker, she is no longer afforded any of the protections that come from being under the wing of Gotham City’s most notorious criminal and now finds herself being pursued by every cop and criminal in town that she has alienated over the years.
At the top of that list is powerful Gotham crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a.k.a. the Black Mask, and it isn’t long before he and sadistic henchman Victor (Chris Messina) have Harley in the nasty clutches. At the last second, Harley manages to talk her way out of imminent death with a proposal. It seems that Roman is intent on acquiring a diamond of great importance to them (though the particulars are rather haphazardly spelled out) but which was inadvertently stolen from Victor’s pocket by young thief Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco). Since Harley claims to know where the girl is, she proposes that, in exchange for her life, she will track Cassandra down and get the diamond back. Roman agrees but then decides to put a $500,000 bounty on Cassandra, assuring that Harley will have to fight off every thug in town in order to succeed. That is easy enough but when she catches up with the girl, she winds up taking her under her own wing instead. in her efforts to protect the girl, Harley winds up crossing paths with a number of other women—alcoholic detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who sings in Roman’s club and has a couple of secret powers of her own, and a mysterious assassin who is known as the Crossbow Killer but who prefers to be called The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)—and when they all come together and discover that Roman wants them all dead for various reasons, they elect to band together to bring him down for good and save Cassandra in the process.
To put it charitably, “Birds of Prey” (as it will be referred to for the remainder of this review) is kind of a mess and while some of that can probably be explained by the fact that it is being shown through the admittedly fractured respective of its cracked central character, just as much can be blamed on old fashioned clunky filmmaking. The screenplay is by Christina Hodson, who previously pulled off the seemingly impossible task of penning a decent “Transformers” script with the surprisingly entertaining and graceful “Bumblebee.” She does not, however, quite pull off a similar miracle here. While the scenes in which Harley revels in her freedom while pondering her post-Joker existence are as exuberantly entertaining as one could possibly hope for (her monologue about a particular breakfast sandwich is a delight) but neither the character nor the film are quite able to free themselves from the requirements of the contemporary comic book blockbuster and the film begins to grind to a halt whenever the plot rears its oddly coiffed head.
This sensation is not helped by the decision to convey all the pertinent plot information through a series of confusing and largely unnecessary flashbacks that muddy up the proceedings to the point where certain seemingly important details—such as why Roman puts on a mask and identifies himself as Black Mask in the climactic battle when everyone knows who he is—are essentially rendered inexplicable. Likewise, director Cathy Yan does well with the smaller, character-driven scenes but doesn’t seem to have a good handle on the big action beats—there is an extended fight near the climax in an abandoned amusement park that seems especially promising in theory but which comes across too often as a mass of confusion. And while I recognize that the film is a deliberately over-the-top violent spectacle and that it does have an “R” rating, there are a couple of instances where the level of on-screen brutality goes a little too far. Fun is fun but when a 16-yea-girl and her family are getting their faces sliced off in a scene designed for laughs, that is just a bit too much.
And yet, even as “Birds of Prey” is struggling with the broad strokes, it has enough other stuff going on that does work to keep it from going off the rails. There is a slapdash energy to the material that keeps it humming along for the most part and when Yan gets a chance to ditch the narrative and let her freak flag fly—such as a dream sequence that rescores the famous “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” with machine guns and S&M gear and the scene where Harley attacks a police station with an array of glitter guns that suggests “The Terminator” as directed by Bob Mackie—the results are undeniably memorable. Most of all, it has a wonderful performance from Margot Robbie, who was the sole respectable aspect of “Suicide Squad” and whose work here proves to be the best example of the notion of addition by subtraction in pop cultural history since Don Henley went solo. She is great throughout—a funny, sexy and unpredictable wonder who perks things up practically every moment she is on the screen. She also plays well with others to boot, giving her female co-stars their own moments to shine as well.“Birds of Prey” has its share of other problems—it could use a lot more of Mary Elizabeth Winstead (a statement that could be applied to most any movie these days), whose dry turn as The Huntress inspires some of the biggest laughs, less of Ewan McGregor, whose stabs at scenery chewing in lieu of developing a character grow wearisome after a while and you get the sense that it either went into production without a fully realized script or had a lot of stuff cut out during the editing process. That said, it is comforting to see a major studio sinking a lot of money into something so defiantly strange and one that so openly celebrates the joys of girl power in all forms. Like the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy, it provides viewers with a sugar rush of undeniable giddiness, even though it doesn’t leave much of anything of substance behind to cling to after the inevitable clash. I cannot say that this film has given me any renewed hope about the possibility of a Suicide Squad 2” but as a preview for the further big-screen adventures of its newly emancipated anti-heroine that throws everything imaginable at the viewer, including a hyena in the bathtub, it works, albeit on its own very peculiar terms.
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