Birds of Prey… (****): On their knees for no one

Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn – 2020

Director Cathy Yan
Screenplay Christina Hodson
Starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor

It’s hard to separate Robbie’s first run at Harley Quinn from the rest of the good, but flawed Suicide Squad. Her performance in the film is electric, but it’s almost countered by Leto’s miscalculated take on The Joker and Delevingne’s annoying Enchantress. She plays the role with absolute commitment to the spirit of the character. One could never guess that hers is a character relatively new to the DC Universe.

Fortunately in this second stab at the character, she is tied with a director and writer that completely understands the idea of how her character can shine. It’s a woman action movie that doesn’t hammer us over the head with being woke. Instead of seeing Quinn throwing guys around like gravity doesn’t exist, we see someone who understands that a kick in the junk is the best way to end a fight.

The idea behind the film is dual. First, wanting to see more of Suicide Squad’s best character. During the time when the second film is in flux, this was a viable option to keep at least Robbie playing a character that she’s the perfect age to play. Second, Quinn is good a character as any to bring out a lesser known (but still somewhat well received) Birds of Prey comic team that had a decent run as a live action TV series.

The Huntress (Winstead) and Black Canary (Smollett-Bell) are here, with differing backgrounds than earlier incarnations. They are joined with Perez’ Montoya, who somewhat inhabits the spot traditionally saved for Oracle. The film shows how their competing interests come together, first in the pursuit, then in protection of Basco’s Cassandra Cain. A foster child who is also a pickpocket, nabs a MacGuffin and puts herself in the crosshairs of Black Mask (McGregor, who is wisely free of the mask for much of the film) and his henchman, Victor Zsasz (an almost unrecognizably nasty Messina).

The story matters less in this case than the style with which it is told. Fortunately, Yan and Hodson strike a nice balance between feminine wile and Deadpool comic brutality. The film might seem derivative, were it not for Robbie’s complete absorption into the humor and brutal comic lunacy of Gotham without Batman looming.

The casting of Winstead, Smollett-Bell and Perez has to pale in comparison to the 10000 watt smile of Robbie’s Quinn. This is good for the film, overall, but it doesn’t do much for the prospect of a film franchise without her character. All of the characters work so well as a team, one’s mind doesn’t wander even to the thoughts of whether it is woke enough or not. This is due to the over the top brutality of their nemeses as well the hilarious interjection of phrases and symbols while helping Quinn tell her story.

McGregor is near perfect as the misogynistically brutal Roman Sionis. Our first exposure to he and his number one, Zsasz shows them brutally massacring an entire family (not the last family to be wiped out, either). They are not judicious with whom they express their brutality and our heroine gets more than a few beatings. It’s shocking for the simple fact that it feels pretty normal and no one plays the victim. Everyone in this universe is an opportunist, seeking revenge or a combination thereof.

I will never grow tired of seeing Robbie in this role. McGregor relishes every moment to chew the scenery and spit it out. The Birds of this team feel like pieces of a whole, even if they seem incomplete when Quinn is not in their presence. This is one of the better DC films to come out in a decade. It will be interesting to see how they proceed.

CPE’s rating (**** out of *****)
Em’s rating (****1/2 out of *****)

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