New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

This is a manic, frantic, film packed with wisecracks, violence and head-pounding music. It’s relentless. But, with Margo Robbie at the helm, females rule in some tantalizing moments. Robbie does a good job again of delivering her lines with that sassy Brooklyn accent that belies the fact there’s a very smart brain underneath that distinctive, colorful makeup.

The centerpiece of the narrative is ultra violent, including hand-to-hand combat. Harley shows again she can handle herself. In 2016’s Suicide Squad she used her looks to disarm opponents before landing the haymaker. But in Birds of Prey, director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson create a more femme-centric character whose instinct for self-preservation keeps her focused on revenge. Harley may be crazy, but she’s no fool and she even makes some wild female friends along the way.

It’s a bit ironic that this movie opens at the beginning of the weekend when Joaquin Phoenix is a favorite to win an Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker.  Joker is still Harley’s heartthrob and a major player in this movie even though he’s never properly seen. We get a cartoon treatment of him at the beginning of the film and Harley has a caricature sketch of him on her wall she uses for knife throwing target practice.

Joker had been Harley’s obsession. She gave him love and obedience and as long as she was perceived to be his girl, she prowled Gotham with complete immunity. He was her protector, until he tossed her aside. Their love/hate relationship continues. She literally explodes their relationship to prove she’s no longer Joker’s Girl by blowing up a chemical plant where Joker and she first forged their toxic personalities and relationship. 

Immunity scuttled, all bets are off. Everyone who steered clear is now hell -bent on revenge. True to it’s comic book roots, when a new attacker appears, the screen momentarily freezes on their marked-up faces with text explaining why they want her dead. Some are gruesome, “Fed his brother to a hyena.” Others are political and funny, “Voted for Bernie.”

Gotham’s current King of Crime is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). He rules the grim, grimy city in a velvet sport coat and delights in skinning his victims alive. McGregor is not as strong as we think he should have been as the sneering, loathsome villain. But his constant shadow and trusted right- hand-man, gold-toothed Zsasz (Chris Messina), is much more menacing than MacGregor’s Roman.

To survive, Harley must form alliances. Her eventual partners are certainly diverse, but all female. There’s Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), the only super-powered member of the gang. Then add the Huntress ( Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a crossbow expert who uses her deadly talents to exact personal revenge on the mob boss who had her family murdered. Throw in a tough streetwise police detective, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and a savvy, sarcastic teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) and Harley has a new squad to take down the army sent to destroy them all. All these women have a common thread in their lives. They’ve been treated badly by men.

The Huntress with her cross-bow is the most ironic and mysterious of the lot. She comes off as an intriguingly subversive character. Imaginative that the director just has her show up at random moments throughout the film before identifying who she is and why she’s there.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique saturates the color to the extreme to the point where it becomes a somewhat annoying distraction. Especially with all the day-go colors Harley wears and her stark white face. Her costumes are colorfully fun, too.

Food figures prominently, whether its Harley drowning her woes with a mouthful of spray cheese or tight shots showing her cherished egg, bacon and cheese sandwich being constructed on the grill.

There are some savage moments of torture and humiliation to make you feel uneasy. In one scene, Roman changes his mind about cutting a young girl’s face off while she’s still alive, which is supposed to lead to a funny punchline. In another squirm inducing moment, he orders a woman who laughed too loud to get up on a table and strip and dance. Yan and Hodson had no reason to include this scene. As a matter of fact they simply cut away and never resolve the situation. It’s smacks of nothing more than pandering.

On the plus side, the fight scenes are choreographed well. The staging of the fight moves looks like a lot of what you might see on WWE. Take-downs and body slams are in abundance, but mainly there are crotch kicks and baseball bat smashes in abundance. And Harley’s chase on roller skates literally cracks the whip. Director Yan throws in some fun touches during the constant battles, like when Montoya gets her hair tied back in place without missing a beat while bashing the bad guys.

But Harley is the star of this show, on screen almost every minute. Robbie has this anti-heroine’s persona just right, doing disgusting deeds with a big grin. She’s even cute! This is one colorful, bad ass female action adventure  with an ensemble that will be fun to follow again. We saw the film in Dolby and the sound design rocked our seats. Stay seated till the end of the credits and you’ll see DC, trying to prove it has a sense of humor, even poking fun at Marvel with a credits ending clip. Harley rules from beginning to end.  

Warner Bros. Pictures             109 Minutes                 R

from Movies and Shakers

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