If you’re a “toxic, privileged white male with no sense of humor” do not see the recently retitled, Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. If you happen to be all the above, but possess a sense of humor and love DC Comics, and in particular, Harley Quinn, then you will have a blast at this trippy, tantalizing entry from Warner Bros and the DCEU.
Harley Quinn, produced by and starring Margot Robbie as the titular ‘former’ ex of the Joker is a film about emancipation. When we first meet Harleen Frances Quinzel (her real name) in a gloriously engaging and funny animated prologue, we see her life story beginning (literally) with one sperm successfully swimming to an awaiting egg.
Through her fourth-wall breaking monologues, similar to Ryan Reynolds’ “Merc with a Mouth” in Deadpool, we go on a journey with Harley’s growth from abandoned baby to turning the tables on an abusive nun in a foster home to graduating with a PhD in psychology and finally, her abusive romance with the Joker.
The film then moves to live action where Harley is depressed and at the end of her drunken ropes after “Puddin'” dumped her in the David Ayer 2016 film, Suicide Squad. Harley is lost, bitter and heartbroken. These traits are always what has made her an interesting and complex character. She is someone who goes all in for love, but she also may beat you to death with her bat or mallet.
Harley is searching for her place in the world. That desire takes her from being the most aggressive player in a roller derby league, inflicting pain on other teams, to wallowing in gobs of cheeze whiz and margaritas to villain Roman Sionis’ (Ewan McGregor) Milk Bar.
Harley overhears a group of her teammates talking behind her back and soon realizes that her life has been defined by the Joker and she is determined to break free. She accomplishes that by cutting her blue and red pigtails and exploding the place of her origin – Ace Chemicals.
This is the Harley Quinn method of deleting selfies from an old relationship.
Where Harley believes she is now free of the Joker, she is not off the hook from all the destruction and hurt she and the Joker caused to others. Now they want her dead, including Sionis, who has a penchant for removing his victims’ faces. Literally.
In order to save her own skin, Harley is thrown into a plot that involves others who are in need of freedom. Harley must hunt down a pick-pocketing teenager Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) who has stolen a diamond from Sionis’ lover and lead henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina).
The diamond originally belonged to a crime family called the Bertinelli’s. We learn through a flashback that the family is massacred by Sionis’ henchmen, leaving only young daughter Helena alive. When she grows up she becomes the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who is defined by hatred and her desire to avenge her family’s demise.
Also after Harley, Cassandra and Helena is Detective Renee Montoya, played by Rosie Perez (nice to see her back). And finally, there is Milk Bar, night club singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who is a Sionis’ driver and bodyguard. Of course, Lance is more than a songbird as she is the Black Canary.
Through a delightful and delirious series of events, the five women eventually bond together and redefine who they are as women.
While this is not a Birds of Prey film, it is most definitely a Harley Quinn film with a strong supporting cast. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s take on the Huntress is unexpected and funny. Jurnee Smollett-Bell steals every scene with a performance that can only be described as badass. Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain is tremendously fun. And Robbie IS Harley Quinn. As Christina Hodson said at a screening, it is clear Robbie loves this character. She owns it the same way Gadot owns Wonder Woman and Johansson owns Black Widow.
It’s a shame that the film doesn’t explore Sionis’, who is also trying to free himself from his family’s roots and become the top Gotham gangster in his own right, and Zsaz’s relationship more. At times, it’s more cartoonish than it needed to be.
Robbie’s performance is so layered and complex, we feel like we have spent way longer with her than just in Suicide Squad. The possibilities of future films focusing on Harley are desired and deserved.
Exciting female-driven action films are way overdue. While Birds of Prey delivers on all its weird pistons – writer Hodson (Bumble Bee) said in one of the earlier screenplays drafts that when the Black Canary originally uses her cry, all the men “shit” their pants – it is clearly not making money because its “girl power” message comes with a transparent man-bashing message.
B.O.P. is wonderfully diverse with its heroes, but not so much with its villains. And that is the main problem with the film. There is not one decent guy (except for a diner cook who makes a bomb egg sandwich) in the film and all of the villains are white males.
For a film like this to attract a bigger segment of audience (which includes white males), it should have flipped what male-driven superhero and action films have done forever – instead of having a great female sidekick, have someone male.
You can’t expect a male audience to respond positively to a film that doesn’t like them. The success of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman rested squarely on Gal Gadot’s spectacular performance and shoulders, but Chris Pine was right there alongside her to shoulder the burden. Captain Marvel’s Brie Larson had Samuel L. Jackson and explored the same themes as B.O.P.
The recent slate of female-driven action films have flopped not because of men not being interested in the genre. They failed (with the exception of Birds which is modestly budgeted) because they were bad films. All you have to do is look at female-led films such as Alien and Alien 2, Terminator and Terminator 2, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Mad Max: Fury Road. All financial and critical successes. However, men were not just villainous.
Visually, director Cathy Yan, production designer K.K. Barrett and superb cinematographer Matthew Libatique have created a unique, exciting, and unlike any other Batman film, vision of Gotham City.
Like Hodson told an audience during the screening, “We always see Gotham at night when it’s raining or snowing. We’ve never seen it during a blistering summer day when everything smells like sweat and piss.”
The music choices are some of the best to come in a long time. As a female empowerment film, Birds of Prey soars. It just needs to add at least one decent male supporting male character if it wants to fly higher at the box office.
Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is a fantabulous 4 Ball Point Pens, so says the Geek.
The Geek is a working screenwriter, director and screenwriting instructor.