September 23, 2020

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Harley's revved up

Superhero movies needed a chaotic anti-heroine, and Margot Robbie ably fills that gap

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/2/2020 (227 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Upon first viewing, one is drawn to the conclusion that the DC-based comic book movie Birds of Prey is a bit of a mess.

Its plot, such as it is, registers as chaotic. Its villain — a vengeful child of privilege named Roman Sionus, a.k.a. "Black Mask," (played by Ewan McGregor) — comes off as a vicious homosexual cliché out of a ‘60s movie. Any one of its abundant action sequences lack the flow of the great fight sequence, offering instead a rote catalogue of every bit of martial arts choreography of the past few years. (Coming on the heels of the successful money-spinner Joker, a movie with no elaborate fight scenes whatsoever, one wonders why they bothered.)

Yet the movie does have a certain, persistent charm to it if you consider that, maybe, the mess is the point.

Technically, the movie is a follow-up to Suicide Squad, the 2016 DC dud that introduced the cinema universe to Margot Robbie’s manic villainess Harley Quinn, who emerged as the only real reason to watch the movie. A problematically masochistic moll, Robbie shone through by demonstrating a kinship with Jack Nicholson, the Joker of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman: skilful overacting, fierce wit and a killer smile.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Warner Bros.)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Warner Bros.)

In a way, though, Birds of Prey is better considered alongside Patty Jenkins’ 2017 Wonder Woman. That film, you’ll recall, gave as Gal Gadot as the aspirational warrior-goddess, striving always to do the right, courageous thing.

Birds of Prey scriptwriter Christina Hodson offers up a contrarian — and decidedly earthy — view of its feminine characters, especially with Harley, whom we find having been freshly dumped by her psychotic snuggle-bunny, the Joker. (Mercifully, we are spared a Jared Leto cameo.) Harley is a hot mess, consoling herself with bad lifestyle choices, including drinking to excess, eating fatty and sugary foods and randomly breaking the legs of any guy who gets on her nerves.

While people still believe she is under the protection of the Clown Prince of Crime, she Harleys her way through life with impunity, but once word gets out she’s flying solo, the knives come out, metaphorically and literally. Feeling especially vengeful is Roman, who has been bearing Harley’s insults and assaults far too long.

Simultaneous to this:

A mysterious assassin calling herself the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is killing random mobsters with her crossbow.

Margot Robbie (Warner Bros.)

Margot Robbie (Warner Bros.)

A chanteuse at Roman’s club known as Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is trying to save the life of juvenile pickpocket Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco) who has inadvertently stolen a priceless McGuffin from Roman’s depraved henchman Victor (Chris Messina).

One of Gotham City’s few remaining good cops, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), finds herself in over her head trying to get the goods on Roman in the face of a hopelessly corrupt police force.

The movie takes too long tying these disparate elements together. In the interim, there is far too much time spent constructing Roman’s villain cred with scenes of outré sadism. (Someone evidently deemed these necessary to counter McGregor’s innate likability. It might have just been better to cast a more practised heel. O, Michael Ironside, where art thou?)

Director Cathy Yan employs some of Tim Burton’s carnival imagery to interesting effect, but she jettisons his Gothic trappings. Esthetically, it’s a weirdly sunny movie, with vivid yellows and golds shining through the black. If Wonder Woman looked like a film modelled on the sacred scrolls of a secret society of Amazons, the Birds of Prey production design might have been modelled on a notebook belonging to a hyperactive teen, all manic scribbles, hearts and daggers — a consciously vulgar response to Wonder Woman’s classical idealism.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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