Combustible Celluloid
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With: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina, Ali Wong
Written by: Christina Hodson
Directed by: Cathy Yan
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material
Running Time: 109
Date: 02/07/2020

Birds of Prey (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Feathered Girlfriends

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Suicide Squad (2016) was such a bungle that the folks behind the DC Universe are offering two apologies for it, two complete do-overs. Taika Waititi's reboot The Suicide Squad is due next year, and now we have Cathy Yan's Birds of Prey, subtitled and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. This one is allowed a rollicking "R" rating, mostly for language and for characters beating the crap out of one another. Sex isn't really an issue, but more on that later.

It's generally agreed that Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn was the one good thing from the previous film, and she's the only one returning here. She has broken up with the Joker, but this twist is explained in a clever animated opening sequence, with the Joker looking like the good ol' cartoon Joker and not like Jared Leto's ridiculous version (or Joaquin Phoenix's soul-killing version).

Harley's association with the Joker brought her certain power, and now she's reluctant to let anyone know she's solo, lest she give up that power. But, roaring drunk one night, she decides to blow up the chemical plant where she and her Puddin first became a thing. As police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) puts it, "she just updated her relationship status."

Suddenly, every thug she ever wronged is after her. But to make matters worse, a maniacal, megalomaniac club owner and businessman, Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), is also after her. See, there's this diamond — a classic MacGuffin — that has bank codes inside it. A teen pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) has stolen it and swallowed it, and everyone's after it, including bounty hunters.

As for the rest of the birds, Dinah Lance, or Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), is working for Roman very much against her will, and she becomes involved. So does a killer with a crossbow known as the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has a personal history with the diamond. The five women eventually team up against the army of men that are all either trying to get the diamond or kill Harley. Brilliantly, the final showdown is set in the abandoned amusement park that Harley and the Joker once used as a hideout, complete with all kinds of bizarro sets and props (bad guys are smacked with huge rubber hands, etc.).

Director Yan, miraculously, an Asian woman directing a mainstream blockbuster (dare we get our hopes up that this might be the first of many?), turns in a lean, tightly choreographed film, with gorgeous fight scenes. The women perform all kinds of flying twirls and twists before they land powerful roundhouse kicks on the clueless men. It takes a page from the Deadpool films (Deadpool and Deadpool 2), having fun being filthy, playing around with narrative and the fourth wall, and generally having a good time. Additionally, with the male gaze removed, Harley is no longer quite so sexualized as she was last time. Here, she appears more like an actual post-breakup person, wearing clothes that are comfortable rather than clingy.

If the movie has any flaws, perhaps the main one is that it has too many pop songs; they feel shoehorned in, butting up against one another and creating a rather noisy landscape. Additionally, while McGregor miraculously pulls off a hilariously psychotic performance as Roman (a fine balance that most actors usually fail to achieve), it feels as if the character is merely a stand-in for the Joker, behaving in much the same way as the Clown Prince of Crime would.

Harley, however, feels deepened and broadened. She's still delightfully crazy-cute, but she carries history and weight now, as she tries to figure out just who she actually is, herself, without the shadow of her former beau. In certain scenes, she lets shock, surprise, and regret show through her carefully constructed facade, and it's tragically moving. If Phoenix can win an Oscar for his Joker, Robbie ought to be considered for this role.

Happily the other women are just as terrific. Smollett-Bell is sad and bristly, carrying a history of pain and determined to protect herself at every turn. Perez's detective has been passed over for promotion by men too many times, and she bottles up her rage and muscles along. And Winstead is surprisingly funny; she's a whiz at killing, but extremely awkward otherwise. She has no idea how to engage with humans, or how to deliver zingers during battle. Finally, Basco is like a ballet dancer when she picks pockets, and another character that has built up a shield full of pain against the world.

Interestingly, there's quite a lot of pain in Birds of Prey, just like in the world of Joker, but also more hope. The world has been awful to these women, and pretty much awful to just about everyone else too. Finding someone to call friend, or family, is perhaps a good way to get through, and maybe try to make the world a better place.

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