By Jason Delgado
Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is as if Heath Ledger’s Joker said, “Why so serious?” to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, and a funner, more comedic (compared to The Joker), yet still gruesome, female DC version of Deadpool was born. I personally prefer Deadpool, but this Spice Girls-like girl power version has its own charms.
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is this movie’s Ferris Bueller, breaking the 4th wall on occasion to talk directly to the audience, and narrating throughout the whole journey with some humorous observations. Her obsession with delicious breakfast sandwiches reminded me of the Suicidal Tendencies punk classic, Institutionalized, where the singer laments “All I wanted was a Pepsi, and she wouldn’t give it to me.” Life is a downward spiral from there, to which Quinn can attest, after she doesn’t get her sandwich.
Let’s back up a minute, as this movie does multiple times in the opening act, by showing a scene and then going back to what happened before, a la Pulp Fiction. There’s a comical little animated sequence in the opening of the movie where Harley sums up her life story up until this point. It’s the age old tale of a girl becoming a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, falling in love with her most deranged patient, the Joker, jumping into a chemical vat to prove her love, becoming the true mastermind behind his greatest heists without the credit, and then getting dumped.
Harley Quinn’s whole identity has been wrapped up in being the Joker’s girl, hence the emancipation part of the film’s title. Quinn’s journey to pick up the pieces of her self-esteem and become her own woman is part of the female empowerment message of Birds of Prey, which is filled with badass female characters.
I love girl power so much that I married a strong female, but I do have a minor gripe with how the film tells that message. (Small spoiler alert ahead) Every male character that I can think of in this movie is a scumbag, in one way or another. Is it necessary to tear down an entire gender to uplift another? I’m not offended, since it’s obviously done in a tongue-in-cheek comedy flick, and men have had it easy comparatively for far too long, but do we really need to “degrade men” (insert sarcasm) to show how awesome these women are? It just seemed like a cheap device in order to try to uplift these women even more, when they are already cool enough as is. The counterpoint is that it can be seen as an allegory for how every man in their life fails them, but it stuck out to me in a mildly distracting way.
This movie is pretty simplistic in terms of plot. Harley Quinn has made a ton of enemies just by being herself. Chief among them is flamboyant crime boss Roman Sionis, aka the Black Mask (played gleefully by Ewan McGregor) and his ruthless right hand man Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). Now that she’s no longer with the Joker, it’s open season on Quinn. Her only way to stay alive is to find a young pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (scene stealer Ella Jay Basco), and deliver a precious diamond Cain stole to Sionis, before the city full of mercenaries can get to the girl first.
Margot Robbie is the star of the show and rightfully so, with her magnetic performance as the anarchistic Harley Quinn, full of quips and cool that not just any actress could pull off as an anti-hero. The rest of the cast was a joy to watch as well, which I feel has been a weak spot for DC in the past. Ewan McGregor hasn’t visibly had this much fun being bad since possibly the Tales From the Crypt episode in which he starred in 1996. He gets to be an outright evil dude in this movie, and loves every minute of it. Speaking of the 90’s, where has Rosie Perez (police detective Rene Montoya) been since White Men Can’t Jump? It’s good to see the feisty, funny female from one of my favorite flicks back in a larger role. Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary is the embodiment of awesomeness, and the only true superhero in Birds of Prey, with her voice as a weapon in more ways than one. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the Huntress is another familiar face from past favorites (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), also a tough as nails anti-hero, with a dark secret.
DC is taking a chance by focusing on newer comic characters in this movie, as opposed to the established female favorites such as Batgirl, Catwoman, or Poison Ivy. I personally enjoy the freshness of the choice, since I admittedly don’t know much about the Huntress or Cassandra Cain. DC/Warner Brothers television is already showcasing some of the aforementioned old favorites anyhow, so expanding the universe with new characters is for the best in my opinion.
Director Cathy Yan pumps the film full of stylish, well-choreographed action sequences. Too much of a good thing, however, can detract from the experience, which I found to be the case here. We as an audience are so desensitized to action over the years that a certain tipping point can lead to a few yawns. My exception to said rule is Jackie Chan movies and the John Wick franchise, just because they’re so innovative with fight planning, use of weapons, as well as the main actors doing their own death defying stunts. As great as the action was, this movie would’ve been well-served to balance it out a little more with plot and character development.
The best action sequence in Birds of Prey takes place in a carnival fun house, with all of the females kicking man-butt, while Heart’s Barracuda appropriately pumps loudly from the soundtrack. It’s such a metal moment that the female stranger sitting beside me was rocking her head back and forth, whipping her hair, like she was at a live hard rock concert, soaking in all of the femininity in its most visceral form.
I enjoyed the out-of-sequence scenes mentioned earlier because I felt they added to the mystery of it all, but once the story moved to the standard linear format, it lost some of its luster. Another strength was some of the twisted jokes (such as a certain Popeye-like moment for Harley Quinn, or her pet hyena Bruce), but they were too few and far between for me to elevate it to Deadpool status.
I give Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) three out of five hot sauce packets. I could have done with more comedy and less action from Christina Hodson’s script, but it was still enough fire to have a fun time.
P.S. – Stick around until the final credits to hear another Harley Quinn joke!