Think Movies: Birds of Prey: and the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn

Think Movies: Birds of Prey: and the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn

by Alan Grant
article from Friday 28, February, 2020

AS IT HAS BEEN a while since I brought you an instalment of ThinkMovies, I’m sure you’ll understand that I’ve seen quite a few films since we last took a trip to the multiplex together. Therefore, dear reader, I’ve had more than the usual number of movies to consider when wondering which one would offer the best soapbox on which to stand for this triumphant return.

Do I take the chance to retrospectively talk about King Cobra, the thrilling story of a gay porn star caught up in the politics of the adult entertainment business, as it’s now on Netflix? No, I’ve done the whole retro movie thing and I’ve talked about Netflix enough in this column for a while.

Should I take the opportunity to give a well-deserved kicking to Greed to alleviate the pre-pay day stress? After all, if any of us had actually wanted to watch Steve Coogan switch between masturbating and pontificating then I’m sure we had need only ask for a private dance. I mean, it’s clear what he’s become, right? Surely all we’re discussing now is the price? Nah, it’s not worth my time or yours.

Or, do I do what all the other critics have been doing and spend precious column inches telling you just how great Parasite is? Don’t get me wrong, it is and you should absolutely go see it if you haven’t already, but you’ve heard that already, haven’t you? I would hate to bore you with an opinion so obvious and common that we’d both need a double-shot latte just to get to the end together.

So, after much swithering and dithering, I’ve decided that the movie that I’ve got the most to say about is, to my surprise and I’m sure to yours, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and just to go with that. Perhaps because, as is often the case with a true genre flick, it has been overlooked and also perhaps because there feels like there’s quite a bit riding on this one.

Birds of Prey, I refuse to continue to type out the full title, follows on from 2016’s Suicide Squad and picks up with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn who has recently broken up with the Joker. Now that she doesn’t have Mr J’s protection, it quickly becomes clear that Quinn is a target for everyone who has a grudge against her in Gotham City – which, it turns out, is most people. She eventually becomes tied up in an arrangement with crime lord Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor, over the recovery of a lost diamond and once the situation becomes upended she is forced to team up with booze-soaked cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), supersonic vigilante, Black Canary, (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), streetwise pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), and costumed avenger Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to take him down. 

With the exceptions of Joker and Shazam! every single movie made from a DC asset has ranged in quality between “meh!” (Wonder Woman) and utterly dire (Suicide Squad, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) and most have been on the poorer end of that range. So, it’s fair to say that Birds of Prey had the deck stacked against it before it opened. Furthermore, since only Shazam! out of the two decent movies is set in the DC Extended Universe, Birds of Prey opened with the challenge of reviving the studio whose lunch money has been lining Stan Lee’s coffin for the past several years.

It was a tall order but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make a valiant stab at it.

Birds of Prey is a great fun, silly, zany, and vibrant little dirty treat of a film. The use of bright colours, bad language, cartoon violence, and a cast that chews scenery until there’s a queue at the on-site dentist makes it really, really fun. Everyone is having a great time in this punky little movie with Smollett-Bell and Winstead in particular lending the supporting cast a likeability and almost a POV from which to view the craziness of everything.

The writing is solid and Cathy Yan, in her first time in the big chair for a big flick, has a knack for atmosphere and pacing that make 129-minute runtime feel just about right and keeps the tone just on the right side of anarchic punk, which suits the film’s sensibilities.

Also worth noting is the quality of the soundtrack. Each track is well-chosen and deployed effectively. In fact, to get personal for a moment, my indicator for the effectiveness of a movie’s playlist is that it helps the audience float in and out between noticing how cool the music is and being fully invested in the scene. Noticeable yet unobtrusive is what we’re looking for and that is what Birds of Prey’s choice of music has throughout – kudos to Music Director Daniel Pemberton.

However, the extra dollops of sugar that make Birds of Prey really good fun are two performances – those of Ewan McGregor and Margot Robbie.

Robbie, who was one of only two watchable things in Suicide Squad and the only one that wasn’t due to Will Smith being the world’s single biggest concentrated supply of charisma, is perfectly cast as Harley Quinn. Sure, she’s madcap, quirky, and ‘random’ but anyone could do that; what makes Robbie’s Quinn so great is that she’s relatable, carries herself with a defiant underdog swagger, and has enough nuance and emotional range to make Quinn more than just a one-dimensional character. She’s just great!

And oh my God! Ewan McGregor! Roman Sionis, or Black Mask, is one of the most sinister villains in the Batman universe and McGregor does that legacy justice. However, much as it’s the complexity of Robbie’s Quinn that makes her performance work, it is the air of disturbed, obsessive, spoilt, controlling and hypersexualised creepiness that makes this version of Black Mask one of them most effective comic book movie villains we’ve ever seen on screen. He’s part Robin Thicke, part frat boy, part Ted Bundy hosting a gameshow, and every single encounter with him leaves you feeling like someone has just slipped a finger inside you without your consent. He’s a genuinely powerful and unpleasant presence on screen and is completely compelling for that reason.

If there is one drawback to Birds of Prey that is worth talking about (I’m not going to discuss the nerd outrage at how ‘not sexy’ this version of Harley Quinn is – kindly, if the editor will allow me to tell you to, fuck off!) then it’s the gender politics messaging. When it comes to whose side this movie is on, as if the characterisation of Black Mask didn’t make it clear, Birds of Prey is fully on team XX and has no time for Y-chromosome possessors. There deliberately isn’t a single redeemable male character in the movie, many of the high action points involve waves of men being thumped by our heroines, and, as if subtlety wasn’t already a foreign concept to Birds of Prey, there are multiple examples of men being booted square in the groin. One of the messages, alongside the importance of friendship, is that ‘men are bad, kick ‘em in the bollocks!’ and this film does not apologise for that nor does it feel that it should.

I understand this criticism of Birds of Prey as much as any bloke might but I don’t think it’s a valid one, necessarily. Sure, the gender commentary, tiresome as it may be in the modern cultural discourse is, in this film, massively over the top, excessive, and extravagant and this would make it highly inappropriate in a regency costume drama or Merchant Ivory film – but Birds of Prey is a manic, 3am sleepover fuelled by sherbet and meth, blisteringly aggressive, fever dream and so this tone works. It would be silly and wrong to expect complexity of message from a film like this, being part St Trinian’s and part the missing scenes from Kill Bill where the female cast members take it in turns to yell at Tarantino for being creepy. Far from being too gratuitous in its comment on relations between the sexes, Birds of Prey succeeds in saying what it says in a compatible style and, well, I don’t think it doesn’t work.

Birds of Prey may not be perfect but it’s extremely fun and it well worth venturing out to your local cinema to see. At the moment, it’s unclear whether or not it’s good enough to ‘save’ the DC extended universe or not, I suspect the damage may have been done to too extensive a degree at this point, but I’ve been wrong before, but it’s certainly a good start and a welcome change of direction. Go check it out!

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