'Birds Of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)' (2020) Review: The Merc With Make-Up
I think Harley Quinn just became my favourite superhero. This isn’t exactly a new development. The character has been a cult favourite since her first appearance on the Batman Animated Series, all the way up to getting her own animated series at the end of the last decade. She was the saving grace of Suicide Squad, even giving Will Smith a run for his money for scene thievery. Now, four years after her debut film, the character takes the reigns all to herself, with ‘Birds of Prey And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn’
It’s an arduous title, but one that audiences will be gleeful in repeating. ‘Birds of Prey’ is only an hour and 49 minutes but in that time it establishes itself so strongly. Yet the language of the film is a known one. The movie has the dna of ‘Deadpool’, ‘Scott Pilgrim vs The World’, combined into the mutated one of a kind masterpiece that is ‘Birds of Prey’.
This hyper violent, abundantly colourful romp is also the deep and touching story of a woman breaking free of her abuser. Harley Quinn is once again played by Margot Robbie, and instead of pining after the Clown Prince of Crime, she’s having to make a go of it on her own. It’s something that she’s not sure that she can do, nor is the audience. Before the credits roll, Harley has to figure out who she is without the Joker, and if this standalone film can indeed stand alone.
The Birds of Prey themselves are all mixed into the chaos in the best way possible. The entire thing is told through the narration of a demented Harley Quinn. The story jumps back and forth through time, for no other reason that Harley forgot a detail or two. Watching the film is like someone trying to tell you the most incredible story they ever had, but they forgot the part about the Hyena named Bruce.
Within that haphazard storytelling is the kind of emotional turmoil that will drive anyone to be a little more than deranged. ‘Birds of Prey’ never pulls its punches, and it feels like one of the only movies of its type to sincerely delve into the complicated and pervasive nature of abuse. The characters all have depth to them that facilitates the kind of performances that resonate. Each of the ensemble has enough character and story to justify their own film, and they’re all brought together as organically as possible.
All roads lead to the deliciously villainous Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask, played by Obi Wan Kenobi himself, Ewan Mcgregor. There have been many comic book villains that have done great justice to their original source material. This is the first time that I’ve seen a villain so appropriate for the film he was in. He’s whimsical, scary, and all around repulsive. Mcregor plays him with such conviction that it’s a pleasure to hate him from the moment he steps on screen.
The characters are solid, and they fit the world. So does everything else. This movie is so tuned into what it’s trying to be and makes no apologies for it. Gotham City has always been a visual wonder for filmmakers, albeit of different visions. The macabre of Burton juxtaposed against the neon of Schumacer. ‘Birds of Prey’ appropriately appropriates both and creates a world that is equal parts grimy and colourful all at once. It’s convoluted plot is a benefit as the film wears its intentions on its sleeve. It’s also incredibly well paced, and is consistently on point with its set design, costuming, and dialogue.
There’s a moment in which Harley Quinn, after a night of post break up drinking, decides to ram a tanker full of gasoline into the Ace Chemical Building, the place where she became the Joker’s victim. After which, there’s an explosion, except there’s not just an explosion. There’s a cacophony of fireworks and enough exposure to deadly chemicals to render the nearby neighbourhood a hazardous environment. Yet the moment is one of triumph, in which it is almost certain that the fireworks were not there at all, but merely a visual measure to effectively give the audience a glimpse into the mind of Harley Quinn. It’s a moment that most comic book films are too safe to venture for, and it has more impact than they could ever dream.
Moments of impact are grand dramatic set pieces, but they’re also thoughtfully quiet. The way in which Harley Quinn speaks about her time as the Joker’s victim has more depth and grit than this brightly coloured romp leads on. Even the way the heroes are dressed speaks to a conciousness that is oft missing from characters in costumes. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays ‘Huntress’ and her outfit clearly speaks to function more than fashion. Jurnee Smollett-Bell on the other hand sports a sexy outfit that feels entirely her own. The characters are fully realised in their look and the way they speak, emancipated from the construction of an image that tailored for a male gaze. Then on the other side of things, Black Mask at one point wears pajamas with his own face on them, so, we can go ahead and give Erin Benach the Oscar now.
The film’s consistency aside, it feels like it’s manic nature results in a lack of focus. At a certain point bringing the characters together becomes a task that the movie doesn’t seem fully equipped to handle. Therefore when it finally does happen, it lacks a sense of impact that the film otherwise enjoys in spades. It’s a joy to watch them kick ass together, but the kind of cohesion they present feels unearned. With fewer character I could see a movie where this wasn’t as grand of an issue, but as it stands, there’s too much going on by the end, and the third act feels a little rushed. Then again, with this movie, rush doesn’t seem to be a bad thing.
Rating: Very High Big Screen Watch