While there are some who remember a time without Harley Quinn i.e. before 1992, I distinctly remember growing up with her automatically ingrained within the DC Universe. When I was old enough to watch re-runs of the “Batman: The Animated Series“, I remember being completely captivated by the quirky, immensely energetic jester-like woman running around onscreen. While Batman and the Joker had a presence all on their own, Harley Quinn was everything the then five-year-old me wanted to be. From that point on, I became fascinated with the character and her continuous evolution and – let’s face it – none of us fans can deny that she’s gone through many changes and awakenings over the span of her roughly twenty-seven years of existence. We got to see some of these changes come to life quite literally in 2016’s critically-panned Suicide Squad, but now we get to see where her journey takes her once more in the live-action realm in BIRDS OF PREY (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
In this film, we are introduced to Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) right after she has broken up with the Joker for good. While acknowledging that her puddin’ was a giant dick who took credit for all of her hard work while they were together, there’s a gaping hole of sadness and a bit of a loss of identity as she struggles to figure out how to be alone for the first time. Harley also acknowledges that being with the Joker provided her with protection from the enemies she’s made in the city of Gotham. But this logical realization completely disappears when one drunken night, she decides to completely blow up ACE Chemicals. You know, the place where Harley and Joker used as a not-so-secret romantic and criminal rendezvous point. This explosive declaration of singlehood becomes a catalyst for change in her life while serving as an open season call to those who have been itching to take her out for good.
While Harley is struggling with dealing with the toxic after-effects of her codependency on the Joker post-breakup, the audience is introduced to what will make up the BIRDS OF PREY as well as the dastardly villains of the film. We meet Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya, a detective who simply can’t catch a break and is surrounded by either wholly incompetent people or those who wish to use her exploits for their own ladder-climbing purposes. However, this doesn’t stop her from fighting the good fight or building up a case against the delusionally narcissistic, psychotic with a hint of victim complex, kingpin of crime, Roman Sionis (played with over-the-top flare by Ewan McGregor). Fortunately, she has a helper on the inside keeping an eye on Roman. In comes Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), the nightclub singer and personal driver of Roman, who is doing whatever she can do to keep her head down and not get murdered by Roman or his sadistic righthand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina).
Then there’s the straight man, mobster heiress actively seeking out revenge, Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elisabeth Winstead). Although her appearance feels brief compared to the other players, Winstead’s Helena makes a memorable impression as the straight-to-the-point, socially awkward assassin who is just here to kill everyone who was involved in her family’s death. With all of these players involved, what ultimately joins them together? The young pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who stole the Bertinelli diamond from the wrong people. As the gang of characters tries to hunt down the girl to get the diamond back, we get how the heroes of this piece find their own path to emancipation from the cages they have trapping them in stagnation. When we reach the film’s end, the freedom they’ve earned feels right, but the realization that there is more work to be done opens the story up for sequels further down the road.
BIRDS OF PREY (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a follow-up to David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, which originally introduced us to the live-action version of Harley. One of the only redeeming elements of that film was Margot Robbie’s take on the beloved character. In this latest film, director Kathy Yan, Robbie, and screenwriter Christina Hodson come together to make the character shine in a zany, bombastic fashion that captures the character’s heart and soul. Hodson’s deft understanding of the character shines through throughout the course of the film, especially when Harley Quinn slips into narrator-mode. Margot Robbie cements the character’s personality through both her vocal performance delivered via narration and amusing animation sequences while her physical performance perfectly conveys to us how we shouldn’t really underestimate Harley ever. If I could watch Robbie’s Harley shoot confetti blasters at cops on a loop forever, I totally would because it’s just perfectly Harley.
However, this is not just the Harley Quinn show. There is a whole array of characters that capture the spotlight as well. And, as you’ve guessed from the title, the BIRDS OF PREY are involved. Mary Elisabeth Winstead’s Helena Bertinelli is the equivalent of the straight man. In the midst of the zaniness Robbie brings as Harley, Winstead’s to-the-point performance really serves to keep things balanced. Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya is really the underdog and she easily makes her someone we can root for because the character can’t catch a damn break. We feel her frustration and annoyance as she continues to grind away at her job. And it really pays off at the end of the film. Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Dinah Lance felt multi-layered. You could tell right off the back that she was a survivor, but smart in trying to keep her skillset on the DL. While we didn’t get the full background to the story, through her performance and what was revealed, we could easily see that she was warm-hearted, but not the gal to mess with.
Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz is eerie and unnerving, putting both the audience and the characters in the universe on edge. We know very quickly that we got to keep an eye on him, especially given how easily he controls McGregor’s Roman. Speaking of Ewan McGregor, man, he went all-in on his interpretation of Roman. He plays Roman as literally how I imagined a psychotic, trust fund baby with a victim complex would be. He rides the wave of Roman’s up and down mood swings and makes him a villain that, for once in a very long time, you can’t wait to see dead. And Ella Jay Basco slays it as the pickpocketing Cassandra Cain, creating an adolescent character that we can get behind as her path of pickpocketing puts a target on her back.
Also, I really need to give a massive shoutout to the stunt team for the work on this film because holy popsicles! The action sequences were so exciting. I mean, at one point, Harley Quinn is just fighting in fricking roller skates which, if anyone has ever done anything on roller skates, you know is absolutely difficult without adding fight choreography into all of that. The choreography was slick, fun, hilarious, insert all of the positive adjectives here. There were so many moving elements, yet they all came together in a pretty, confetti covered package. Oh, and the attention to detail given in the fight scenes in the smallest of moments was something that didn’t fly by unnoticed by this critic. For example, Dinah has a moment during a fight sequence where her hair keeps flying into her face. As soon as she has dispatched someone, Harley rolls right on over and hands her a hair tie so she can pull her hair out of her face and continue fighting. It’s such a simple detail that literally takes less than 30 seconds to play out, but it definitely showcased the care and handling the team took when planning out the action components.
Now I have to switch gears and focus on what I think might set people off. While the acting is on-point, the action scenes are top-notch, and the overall feel is just silly and funtasmical, the narrative may be the biggest source of frustration for some viewers. Personally, I got where Christina Hodson was going with the flow of the script since the viewer is being taken through Harley Quinn’s perspective on the story. However, the bouncing back and forth between present action and filler explanation to keep the audience in the know may distract some audience members. It doesn’t make the plot linear or easy for certain audience members to consume and it may take people out of the overall story. However, I will remind people that the film is being told from the perspective of a certifiably insane character. You know, a character that’s not entirely focused and is living a bit in her own world. So, in all honesty, I thought the decision to bounce the narrative back and forth until it all came together in the second act of the film was kind of genius. It fit well with the character and demonstrated how the creative team really understood the character. That being said, the mostly non-linear narrative may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Look. It’s been an immensely long time since I’ve walked out of a comic book-style movie feeling light and riding a wave of fun sauce that had been injected into my veins. The only films that have left me feeling that way so far have been the Deadpool films. While BIRDS OF PREY has some narrative storytelling issues, they can be easily explained away when you remind yourself that the story is being told by an unreliable, headcase of a narrator. That type of mad dash bouncing around is pretty on-brand for Harley Quinn. With the fucked up violence, the natural chemistry between the cast, bombastic performances, that dope soundtrack, and that shameless silliness that injects some good-natured fun into a Cinematic Universe that has generally felt too serious for its own food, BIRDS OF PREY (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a must-see! And, for the flaws that can be found, it is easily forgiven by this critic. Because there is just so much to enjoy and take home with you when you bounce out of the theater.
BIRDS OF PREY (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is soaring its way into theaters on February 7, 2020. PS. No hyenas were hurt in the making of this movie.