Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker have broken up, for good this time. Harley is looking to establish herself as a criminal force to be reckoned with in Gotham, however without the protection of her former boyfriend, she becomes of the target of everyone with a grudge against her. One of those people is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), nightclub owner and the king of crime on the east side of Gotham City. Sionis has plenty of enemies of his own including GCPD Det. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). She’s been building a case against him for years but can’t get enough evidence to get support from DA Ellen Yee (Ali Wong). The singer at Sionis’ club is Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). She has a beautiful voice and a hidden ability. She also has a crush on Sionis. Someone is using a crossbow to kill some of Gotham’s organized crime figures. That someone is Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and she’s also attracting Sionis’ attention. However, Sionis has his eyes on a bigger prize. The Bertinelli organized crime family was gunned down years earlier, but no one was ever able to put their hands on their fortune valued in the millions. Sionis knows all the account numbers hiding the Bertinelli’s millions were laser etched on a 30-carat diamond and he has finally tracked it down. He sends Dinah and his enforcer, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), to pick up the diamond, but it is stolen by a teenaged pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Sionis puts a half-million-dollar bounty on Cain’s head, sending everyone in Gotham’s crime world, including Harley, looking for her. As the hunt for Cain heats up, Harley, Montoya, Huntress and Lance find themselves forced to team up to protect the young pickpocket’s life and their own.
“Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn)” is another in the trend of giving the bad guys their own movie. We’ve gotten “Suicide Squad,” “Venom” (both getting sequels), “Joker” (possibly getting a sequel), and now “Birds of Prey.” While not strictly about villains, three-fifths of the main characters are criminals in some way, so majority rules. As has happened in all but “Joker,” the bad guys rally to fight a worse guy, making them the good guys that do bad things for the best reasons. Since watching villains do things with no redeeming value is depressing (but profitable as in “Joker”), the trend of villain-centric films is something of a cop out since they wind up being the heroes by the end. “Birds of Prey” continues this trend but does it with such style and attitude, you don’t mind seeing a rehash of most other bad guy stories.
Margot Robbie’s Harley is the narrator of “Birds of Prey” and, reflecting the characters scattered personality, the movie’s story jumps around in time. While I initially found the jumbled narrative annoying, it eventually makes sense as all the story threads tie together. While this isn’t the most imaginative way to tell a story, it works to fit in with Harley’s unfocused nature.
“Birds of Prey” teeters on falling apart for most of its runtime. Between Harley’s insanity, Sionis’ cruelty, neurosis and suggested bisexuality, and the over-the-top violence, director Cathy Yan dances on the razor’s edge of catastrophe. To her credit, Yan manages to pull back from the precipice and deliver a film that gives the audience insane stunts, graphic violence, and characters with enough redeeming values to forgive their past transgressions. All while staying true to the characters and their comic book origins.
Yan and writer Christina Hodson fill “Birds of Prey” with plenty of action and, more importantly, humor. The film is plenty dark when it needs to be, but even when Harley is facing certain death at the hands of Sionis or any one of the people coming after her, she manages a funny quip or an imaginative way out of her sticky situation. The script gives funny moments to just about every speaking character, and even finds some humor for Harley’s pet hyena she names Bruce.
DC films had developed a reputation for being awfully dark and overly serious. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” was certainly guilty of that, and to a lesser extent, “Justice League.” The shakeup of leadership in the DC Extended Universe seems to have allowed some lighter, more humorous takes to be applied to the most recent films. “Wonder Woman,” “Shazam,” “Aquaman” and now “Birds of Prey” have all been significantly less dour than their predecessors. The odd man out here is “Joker,” but I have my own theories as to why that doesn’t count in the DCEU. Listen to the next episode of Comedy Tragedy Marriage for a more thorough explanation. That episode should be out on Tuesday evening, February 11.
“Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn)” is rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material. Several legs are broken at the knee with that joint bending in the wrong direction. A few arms suffer similar fates at the elbow. There are numerous shootings including an entire multi-generational family being gunned down. Several people get shot with crossbow bolts with some of those injuries being very bloody. A family has their faces peeled off. Numerous bad guys are hammered with a giant mallet. A character is blown apart by a hand grenade. That’s a small portion of the violence in the film. The drug material involves a humorous scene where Harley uses cocaine stored in police evidence as a shield from bullets. The bullets rip through the pallet of coke bundles, creating a cloud around Harley. She inhales deeply to gain energy to fight against those attacking her. To be honest, I don’t remember any overt sexual moments in the film. Foul language is common throughout the film.
“Birds of Prey” was initially thought to debut with an opening weekend box office of around $60 million. While it took the top spot in its first weekend, it brought in what is considered a surprisingly low $33 million. Some analysts think the problem is the R rating keeping younger audiences away. “Suicide Squad” was PG-13 and opened at over $130 million. I don’t think that was entirely the issue. To be perfectly honest, I believe there was a combination of misogyny and no highly powered villain playing a big role in the story. The largest segment of the comic book movie audience is male. The only men on screen in this film are vile. With no one to reflect their hero fantasies back to them on screen, men comprised 49 percent of the opening weekend audience (according to numbers from Box Office Mojo). I believe that lack of strong male on screen presence is why some of the nerds that normally fill theaters stayed away. And, with all its faults, “Suicide Squad” had some flashy villains like Enchantress, El Diablo and Killer Croc. While one of the characters in “Birds of Prey” is Black Canary, she only uses her powers to full force once. No one is flying, shooting fire, wielding magic or looks like a humanoid crocodile ripping out necks. Fortunately, such things don’t trouble me enough to stay away from what is a fun adventure, and those holding a grudge over very little testosterone on screen should get over it.
“Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn)” gets five stars.
Next week, I’ll be reviewing the likely very unromantic film “Fantasy Island” for WIMZ.com.
Other movies coming out this week:
Sonic the Hedgehog—
Listen to Comedy Tragedy Marriage, a podcast about life, love and entertainment, available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.