Cathy Yan’s big budget DCEU picture Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn delivers rated-R action violence as we follow the truly fantabulous Margot Robbie owning the title role of one Harley Quinn. Robbie produced the film, and also hired writer Christina Hodson and director Yan. Our abused and highly sexualized anti-hero from Suicide Squard — the 2016 dumpster-fire of a superhero film — takes us on a true character journey. Harley discovers that while she may be bad, she’s not all bad. She is capable of standing on her own, and even caring about others. It’s the first women-led action movie I can think of that approaches the characters from a perspective all their own. And the result is a ton of fun and thrill a minute.
Fresh off a breakup with the Joker, and thus no longer under his protection, it seems every creep in Gotham has a grievance to settle with Harley. She handles it all with a baseball bat, some guns, a knife or two, and plenty of aplomb. The plot is essentially two-fold: First and foremost this is a story about Harley Quinn finding herself. This poor abused soul with no sense of self, and no understanding of agency takes on the world with a naivete in stark contrast with her killer capabilities.
The less important, but tons of fun, second storyline revolves around big-bad gangster Roman Sionis’ (aka Black Mask played deliciously by Ewan McGregor) ambition to take over Gotham’s organized crime world. He plans to pay for said takeover with secret bank accounts, the account numbers of which are hidden in the molecular structure of a big diamond formerly owned by an assassinated old-timey mob family. Whatever. But a hitch in the plans surfaces as young Cassandra pickpockets, and then swallows, said diamond from Black Mask’s extra psycho henchmen number one (Chris Messina as Zsasz.) Hijinks ensue.
While Yan needed no help in the character and directing department, she is young and still learning the ropes on the action front. To her credit she brought in John Wick director Chad Shahelski to help with second unit reshoots and punch up the action. And boy does this pay off. Long takes and wide shots, with the actors doing many of their own stunts, lift the fight sequences to soaring heights, resulting in ultra-violent, but strangely poetic, bone-crunching neo-noir set pieces. It is gratuitous for sure, but I honestly didn’t mind at all. This picture earns its R rating.
On the down side, Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask supplies one of the most cartoony villains in recent memory. But he is serviceable for a story that is primarily about Harley Quinn, and clearly McGregor is having the time of his life. Oh and the plot may or may not be just a tad slight, and typically overstuffed at the same time. If this film wanted to elevate itself (and I’m not sure it did) then it would have spent considerable more time in the writing phase, and fix the many weirdo plot holes and inconsistencies (why don’t the police ever use their guns?) But really, the villain and the plot are beside the point here, and I think this may be a case where fixing the problems would have resulted in a significantly less gonzo, less fun, film.
The film also features Mary Elizabeth Winstead (one of my favs all the way back to Sky High) as Huntress, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary, Rosie Perez as Detective Renee Montoya, and newcomer Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain. All of these women deliver solid performances, especially Winstead as the first socially-awkward vigilante I have ever seen on screen. She delights every time her crossbow-wielding heroine enters the frame.
This film has plenty of twists and turns along the way. But the real twist? They all pass the Bechdel test! Maybe this isn’t such a surprise since women are actually the architects of this movie. But it was refreshing to sit in my dark theater and see these characters come together in their collective brokenness, and find some sense of self and light for their futures as this origin story let loose it’s action chaos.
Through it all, Yan and Robbie do an amazing job bringing the ridiculously oversexualized Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad back into the realm of a real woman (well, as real as a baseball bat-wieldiing anti-hero can be!) They completely remove the male-gaziness established in Suicide Squad. These heroines sweat, and they need hair ties while fighting. Yet, they are completely badass, strong, feminine and super sexy because of these choices.
A classic action flick with plenty of thrills and some brilliant set pieces, time flies by as you watch. And you may just feel a little better about the prospects of women in cinema. Don’t care about any of the social stuff, or the relevance of representation in culture? You will still love it as a pure adrenaline-filled superhero ride. This stylish, colorful and darkly funny picture-show mostly concerns itself with being totally bonkers and bringing us fine viewers along for the roller coaster ride (yes Martin Scorsese, this film kinda feels like a theme park attraction.)
I give Birds of Prey and the Emancipation of One Harley Quinn 7.67 out of 10 girl powered knee busting, bone crunching drop kicks. Go see it.