Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn was probably the best thing to come out of 2016’s Suicide Squad, a widely-lambasted film that didn’t manage to do much of anything right. Fortunately, Robbie’s sophomore effort playing the character is much more successful, even if its brutal violence, torrent of profanity, bright colors and pulsing soundtrack sometimes make it border on sensory overload.
Images: Warner Bros.
One of Suicide Squad’s many problems was that it was frustratingly unclear what its protagonists were even trying to accomplish. They spent a long time wandering through an empty city and occasionally fought some weird zombies. The movie had no narrative momentum whatsoever, and aimed for Big Emotional Moments that it neither earned nor deserved. Its antagonists were cheesy and forgettable, its soundtrack choices were too on-the-nose and too frequent, and its action scenes were choppy and lacked any sense of visceral impact. I could go on, but you get the idea. It…wasn’t very good.
The good news is that Birds of Prey fixes many of Suicide Squad’s problems. The bad news is that (to give the new movie its full title) Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) still has problems of its own. But overall it is a much better film than Suicide Squad. As a side note, this movie is not related in any way to last year’s Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix. That movie is its own separate beast. Just don’t want anyone to be confused.
Birds of Prey isn’t strictly a sequel to Suicide Squad, since the film’s characters aside from Harley are entirely new, many of them making their big-screen debuts. Those characters include Helena Bertinelli, aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead); Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell); Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez); and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). The villains are Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) and Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
Whew, that’s a lot of new characters, and one of the movie’s main problems is that it doesn’t know what to do with all of them. The movie is called Birds of Prey, which implies a team up between the main characters. This team up does eventually happen, but not until very late in the movie. For most of the movie the focus is squarely on Harley.
In the beginning of the film, Harley decides she’s had enough of her old boyfriend the Joker and breaks up with him, making a statement by blowing up the chemical plant where he became the Joker and she later pledged herself to him. While this decision may be liberating, it also has unforeseen consequences. See, when Harley was with Joker, she was pretty much untouchable and go do more or less whatever she wanted and none of Gotham’s other criminals would touch her for fear of reprisals from Joker. But once she explosively declares she’s no longer with him, all of the thugs and mob bosses she’s pissed off over the years decide it’s open season on Harley Quinn.
Of those mob bosses, the most prominent is Roman Sionis, also called Black Mask because he…sometimes wears a scary black mask. Look, it’s not the most creative moniker but at least it sounds intimidating. Anyway, Sionis is a violent, narcissistic, psychotic asshole, and he only decides to spare Harley from a grisly death at the hands of his sadistic right-hand man Zsasz when Harley volunteers to help Sionis recover a missing diamond that has the details to a rich mob family’s bank account encoded on it. The diamond is nothing more than a plot device, and not a particularly interesting one, but at least it makes for a more coherent story than whatever the hell was going on in Suicide Squad.
The story is told from Harley’s perspective, and since Harley’s brain is rather messy, the way the story is told is also messy. If Suicide Squad was the DC and Warner Bros. version of Guardians of the Galaxy, then Birds of Prey is their version of Deadpool. This includes fourth-wall breaking and telling the story out of chronological order. This is kinda fun, but it can also come off as attempting to be overly clever, like the movie keeps elbowing you in the ribs to make sure you get the joke. The plot does make sense and you do eventually understand what is happening, but as is so often the case in life, the path to understanding is often a bit bumpy. I’m sure you could poke holes in the plot if you wanted to, but life’s too short.
Margot Robbie was the perfect choice to play Harley Quinn, she embodies the character so well. She’s nuts, sure, but her endless enthusiasm and anarchic glee make her irresistible. Robbie has the charisma to carry the movie, which is good because the rest of the supporting characters are underused. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is great as Huntress, but despite her second billing in the credits she’s not in the movie much. She does get to kill gangsters by shooting them in the throat with a crossbow, so that’s something. I remember Renee Montoya from the excellent 90’s Batman cartoon where she first appeared, but I didn’t care much about Montoya’s story in this film. Ditto for Black Canary, another likable and badass character who doesn’t get enough to do. The movie has fun characters but doesn’t give enough reason to care about them.
Now let’s talk about the villains, because I love villains. Ewan McGregor plays Black Mask as an absolute bastard, a vicious psychopath in monogrammed gloves and velvet suit jackets. I’ve always liked McGregor as an actor, and since I think of him as usually playing good guys it’s a testament to how good of an actor he is that I had no trouble buying his villainous turn in this film. His main henchman is Victor Zsasz, who in the comics is one of Batman’s most disturbing adversaries. In the movie he has a tendency to, shall we say, do rather unpleasant things to the faces of people who tick off his boss. Expect to see both of them on next year’s villain roundup.
If this sounds like a comic-book movie you shouldn’t let your kids see, you are absolutely correct. Birds of Prey is R-rated, and with very good reason. There is a LOT of swearing and the violence is frequent and brutal (many henchmen limbs are gruesomely snapped, with appropriately crunchy sound effects). That being said, this movie also has the best action scenes of any of DC’s recent movies. I read that John Wick director Chad Stahelski helped punch up the action scenes, and it shows. The fights are well-choreographed, smoothly-edited, and pack a strong visceral punch. In other words, the exact opposite of Suicide Squad’s action scenes. As an action movie junkie, I found this very satisfying. The climactic confrontation in Harley’s hideout at an abandoned amusement park and subsequent car/motorcycle chase with Harley wearing roller skates were particularly excellent.
Birds of Prey is not a perfect film, or even a great one. Its plot is generic, many of its characters are underutilized, and it’s so aggressively stylized that at times it feels like a triumph of style over substance. But for all its flaws, there’s enough going on that it’s never boring, the performances are good and the action sequences are top-notch. It’s also quite funny, as long as you don’t mind dark humor. It has the good sense to wrap everything up in less than two hours so it doesn’t feel overlong. It won’t be to every viewer’s taste, but if you can get on its wavelength there’s still quite a bit of fun to be had.