Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Movie Revies: Birds of Prey (and the Fantbulous Emanicipation of One Harley Quinn)

Birds of Prey: (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) **** / *****
Directed by: Cathy Yan.
Written by: Christina Hodson.
Starring: Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Helena Bertinelli / Huntress), Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Dinah Lance / Black Canary), Rosie Perez (Renee Montoya), Ella Jay Basco (Cassandra Cain), Ewan McGregor (Black Mask), Chris Messina (Victor Zsasz), Ali Wong (Ellen Yee).
To say that the DCU got off to a rough start would be an understatement. They made the mistake of following Christopher Nolan’s lead after his Dark Knight trilogy in one film after another, which ended up becoming an increasingly grim slog in films like Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League and Suicide Squad. The Nolan Batman films worked, in large part, because Batman can be dark, and the villains were chosen wisely, and there was a thematic through line that took everything seriously. It didn’t really work with Superman – Batman’s polar opposite – and once you started to add in more fantastical elements, there was a clash between how goofy much of it was, and how seriously they took it all. This has started to turn around though – with Wonder Woman, which was fittingly inspiring and Aquaman and Shazam, which both, in different ways, embraced the inherent goofiness of their heroes. And now we get Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which may or may not be the best DCU movie so far, but is certainly the one I had the most fun watching.
2016’s Suicide Squad was probably the nadir of the DCU so far – and had they just left it dead and buried, and never brought it up again, you would have understood why. Instead, they decided to head back in, and salvage the one element of that film that worked – Margot Robbie’s delightful sociopath Harley Quinn, best known as the Joker’s girlfriend, and freeing her of Joker (who we’ve seen far too much of recently) – and just letting her freak flag fly. Robbie has increasingly shown just how great – and how versatile – an actress she can be, and here, she carries the film on her back in a performance that may remind you of Ryan Reynolds quipping his way through two Deadpool movies, but somehow, also grounded in some real (if larger than life) emotions. Robbie is given the chance to go all out here, and it’s a delightfully demented performance. The first act is all her, starting with a wonderful animated sequence, and going through some very strange chases and fights, which Robbie handles with ease. It’s a great performance.
The film does slow down a little in act two, when the film really introduces the plot, and the other Birds of Prey. The bad guy is Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), the black sheep of a wealthy family, who wants to run Gotham’s criminal underworld, with the help of his psychopathic assistant Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). The two are obviously telegraphed to be lovers as well – but I’m not giving any credit here unless a studio actually goes all in, and doesn’t simply imply people are gay anymore. Long story short, he wants a diamond, a young pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) has the diamond – and swallowed it – and is now with Harley, who needs the diamond to save her life. Eventually, we’ll also meet three other badass women – Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), McGregor’s driver, but who has a conscience, Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has spent her life wanting vengeance, and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), an honest cop, getting fed up with the system. If you’ve seen the preview, you know they’ll team up – but the movie spends a long time (too long, really) setting them up as individual characters, before getting to the cartoon violence of the finale.
The film was directed by Cathy Yan – doing her first big movie like this – and showing just how good she is at it. At its best, the film moves at a breakneck pace, and while it shoots out in all different directions, mirroring the way Harley goes through life, so the chaos is organized. The action sequences are over the top and goofy, even as they get incredibly violent. In short, they’re a blast.
It’s disappointing that Birds of Prey didn’t make more money it’s opening weekend – and confusing as well. Are men and teenage boys – let’s be honest, the target market for superhero movies – really this opposed to female superheroes, that they won’t show up to watch Margot Robbie and other beautiful women kicking ass in a profane, violent fun ride of a film. Sucks to be them I guess – because for me, this film was a blast.

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