In Review: Birds of Prey – (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

"Do You Know What a Harlequin's Role is?" . . .

Synopsis: Margot Robbie returns to the big screen as fan favourite, Harley Quinn/Harleen Quinzel. The action takes place sometime after the events of 2016’s Suicide Squad (that introduced the title character of this film to the big screen). Now, Harley and the Joker ( in his Mr J incarnation) have split up; Joker has dumped Harley, who is now forced to try and find an identity of her own. Fortunately, the carnage she helped cause whilst under the protection of The Joker is about to catch up with her; fortunately, that is, in terms of helping to provide the events of her first solo outing. Oh, and she isn’t alone; among other interesting characters is a typically unconventional choice of of animal companion that Harley Quinn finds simply adorable . . .

 

Story

As things kick off, Harley Quinn(Margot Robbie)is in a state many have found themselves in, following a break up of a relationship. She is narrating the tale, whilst seeking out a cure for her absolutely mighty hangover, which is only a temporary state of sobriety. She is in full on self-destruct mode, visibly distraught at her break up Joker. She feels lost and as a result is at loss what to do with herself. All hope lies in the super cure fried egg sandwich that she is gifted by a local Armenian cafe owner, one of her go to people. As she is about to chow down on it, a disgruntled Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), alcoholic detective, fires a shot. The sandwich gets it and Harley has to escape. During the get away, she bumps into many of the people who she has upset, whilst with the Joker. There are a lot of people who have it in for her.

A night or so later, Harley is in a nightclub. Again, she is drunk and feeling reckless. A man in the club insults her, and she takes issue. being Harley Quinn, that means that she leaps through the air and lands on his thighs, hard. She breaks both of his legs. It turns out that this man isn’t just anyone. He is the driver of another super crook, The Black Mask, aka Roman Sionis, played by Ewan Mcgregor. The extent of Black Mask’s penchant for evil violence is shown, via flashback. The scene jumps to a few days before, and he has a man, his wife and daughter strung up in an old factory. He is punishing the man for what he deems disloyalty. The big bad of the film is set up, and Harley Quinn has now upset him, by crippling his driver. Back in the club, there is a very talented singer (Jurnee Smollet Bell as Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary), who is told she is to become the new driver. Harley comments that lance has a very powerful voice indeed . . . Later, Lance helps Harley, in the alley behind the club, later. A sleazy henchman is attempting to get Harley in a van, for his own sinister motives. Lance returns home and we see she lives in the same apartment block as Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco, a kid who is a pickpocket. Lance takes pity and gives her money to get food, etc. Cain then unknowingly steals an important item, that Black Mask desperately wants.

Meanwhile, another mysterious character is on the prowl, taking out gangsters with a crossbow. She is unnamed (Mary Elisabeth Winstead plays her). It turns out she is the sole survivor of the massacre of her entire family, who were also a Gotham crime family. She wants revenge, and nothing more. Her family were the owners of a valuable diamond, that has engraved into it via micro-lasering the location of her family’s fortune. This is where things get complicated, that shouldn’t. All the characters of the film are brought together, but the way it is done is awkward and clumsy. The flashback sequences end up as nothing more than backstory, instead of providing big reveals. It feels at times like the films is crowded by an overly complex exposition, despite the fact the characters are all good, and earn their place. Unfortunately the nuance of having many people with varying arcs isn’t achieved well. The title character also feels like she is in two films, at times, too. The emotional shifting of her character, then what is happening to her in the plot. These two elements do eventually tie together, as Harley hires herself out to retrieve the diamond, by capturing Cain. At times, these aspects clash. What ensues is still fun, but a bit strung together. It feels a little like a second or third draft, instead of the final, polished story it should be.

 

Acting

This is the big strength of the film. Margot Robbie never fails to be the star of the show, which is essential to things. Despite the DCEU being a somewhat damp squib (especially compared to the MCU), Harley Quinn shows that DC Comics was always the more grown up of the two big players. As well as providing some awesome ass-kicking montages, there is some wonderful character acting. What Robbie captures well is the ongoing duality between Harley Quinn and Harlene Quinzell. She portrays both, which is a difficult task that she makes look easy. The vulnerability and genuine feelings of post-break up depression fueled self-destruction come across powerfully. With no other actors’ portrayals to draw from (excluding voice stars from Batman: The Animated Series), the job of creating an icon is entirely down to Robbie. She doesn’t fail, instead establishing a cult figure that she will always be associated with, for all the right reasons.

Ewan McGregor is well cast as Roman Sionis. He is menacing on screen, and clearly relishes the opportunity to play a seriosu bad-guy. Though his portrayal is a little hammy at times, that’s only to fit in with the tone and style that the DCEU seems to be creating. The role of “big-bad”, is an important one in any film, but more so in this, as Black Mask is now the current chief of criminals, whilst the Joker is on his unexplained sabbatical. It takes a strong actor to provide a villain that is always going to be compared to the most famous of all villains in any extended universe,or story world. McGregor reminds viewers that the DC universe has many interesting stories to explore, and a vast collection of characters to draw on. It would have been nice to have been shown a bit more of Black Mask’s backstory, but that’s no fault of McGregor’s. He does at least manage to express certain elements of it, including the obsession with torture. A memorable performance from a now veteran who reminds us of his versatility.

The cast all play their part in making an unlikely ensemble one that is memorable for their chemistry and ability to provide much needed light relief. With no real reason for their characters to be together, other than the sub-standard plot, Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollet Bell, Ella Jay Bascoe, Mary Elisabeth Winstead and Rosie Perez manage to put together a team performance that is entertaining as well as at times hilarious. They mask what is the chief issue, of badly planned story-telling. It takes real skill to fill in the holes of a badly delivered plot. Special mention to Chris Messina, as the evil for the sake of evil Victor Zsasz, chief-henchman and BFF of Black Mask. He shows typical devotion to his boss in a compelling and interesting manner, which is never easy. The way he potently hates Harley Quinn and anyone who crosses his boss shows loyalty which is absolute dedication to his own evil. Despite a big cast, he stands out.

CGI&Action

Everyone wants to see Harley Quinn launch into battle in her own unique way, that’s so undeniably her. Whether it’s with her weapon of choice — the over sized mallet or baseball bat — or just fists and feet, she has a way of making you root for her. Her fight scenes are all fun, during this caper. She gets a good amount of fisticuffs too, and that is a strength of the film. The ever -present danger shows just how many people she has crossed, whilst she was with Joker. There are those who are twice her size, who she has to be creative in dispatching with. Of course, she manages it in the only way she knows how. A combination of the silly and the sublime. This combination really works well on the big screen, as it shows that she is always two people, and never wholly a purely cold serial killer. It has to be said that one particular method that gets this anti-hero demeanor gets captured by is a brilliant use of non-lethal force. It uses theatrics with determination to get the job done, which is a nuanced idea.

Something unique about Harley Quinn is her status as only canonical to the Batman franchise due to her appearance in Batman: The Animated Series. Comic book fans are rarely forgiving of any characters being introduced on screen, that aren’t from the comics. With her, it just works. Perhaps as a way to show this, some of her break-up story with Joker is told as memories shown on the screen as animations. This may well be a clever use of animation to pay homage to her origins. Even if that isn’t the case, the “cut-scene” feel is a good way to show the character’s perpetual mental state, and sense of borderline evil genius she brings. This use really manages to get across how such a character might think; it really is feasible that Harley Quinn thinks in animation. A child-like quality gets expressed, too, that frames some of her personality as still quite innocent.

As a sequence, the parts of the story don’t take place quite the way they should. Despite this, the fun is what it’s really all about. This time around, we see a roller-skating Harley Quinn, who again shows a childish impishness to her character. It must be said that at times, the music becomes a bit annoying, instead of a welcome backdrop. What would have been better in the fight scenes was a few well chosen “big” songs, instead of many snippets of music, that can make it feel like a musical collage, instead of an action film with well-timed musical accompaniment. That said, it’s still enjoyable to see, once you realise that you’re never going to get the sort of scenes you do in say a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. The result of the ultra-quick pacing of fight choreography is that the fight is something to just get done, instead of being enjoyed, or becoming a gag. That said, there are still some hilariously awkward overly dramatized deaths, though. As the climax of the film plays out, there’s a big moment for one comic book hero, that fans will have been expecting; for those of us who aren’t experts in comic-book lore, it’s a welcome surprise and rare example of a well-worked in scene.

Overall

With a tighter pace and better planning this could have been a standout film. It does feel a little like the ideas were only coming to mind as the story plays out. The sequencing is weak, but the characters and the on screen antics make up for it. During parts, it felt like you were seeing a comic on the screen, but without the finesse of it being a cinematic graphic novel. That’s what audiences have come to expect. There were some parallels with Deadpool, which were maybe to some extent unavoidable. The Anti-hero, the flashbacks, the narrating. What this film didn’t get right though, was the sharpness of Tim Miller’s Deadpool movies. The slow to get going element and notably awkward clumping of essential parts of the story were what let it down. The plot wasn’t the issue, but the delivery of it, and focus of the right part at the right time, were . This made it all too easy to lose focus of things, and only really be pulled in when the action was going on. It’s a genuine shame that more time wasn’t spent in honing the aspect of narrative that let this film down. For some, that will become the reason they mark it as forgettable. No doubt the hardcore Harley Quinners out there will love it regardless. Whilst it didn’t wow, it did bring fun, colour and definitely a sense of sisters doing it for themselves. Well worth a watch, but let’s hope that if Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn gets another big-screen outing the writers learn from the mistakes made and give the brilliant character a film she truly deserves.

6.8
Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey
  • Story
    5.8
  • Acting
    8.4
  • CGI&Action
    6.8
  • Incidental Music
    6.1
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