'Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn' review: A vibrant live action cartoon
BoP, as we will hereafter refer to Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, because its title is insanely long, is arguably (if not de facto) the most fun move to come out of the DCEU (DC Extended Universe).
It embraces the madcap zaniness of its titular character, delivers over the top action thrills, and introduces a whole new set of characters who—though limited in their development here—are more than interesting enough for us to want more of them. In effect, it accomplishes goals that both Justice League and Suicide Squad struggled to do. And it does it all with seemingly effortless cool and a visual energy that reminds you why you go watch big Hollywood flicks.
First off though, the title is misleading.
While it leads with the Birds of Prey, all characters here play second fiddle to Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. Though she was just one of the Suicide Squad, her popularity (and the potential of the character) make her a great spin-off choice. The character, introduced to the Batman mythos by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini in Batman: The Animated Series has been a fan favorite since then, and has evolved in various media iterations. The Arkham psychiatrist who falls for the Joker, and who becomes his sidekick and abused girlfriend, has become an incredibly compelling anti-hero.
The movie picks up on those stories—credited in the film are Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner who are most responsible for the modern iteration of Harley—and gives Margot Robbie all the creative space she needs to create a cinematic original, a character that you can’t take your eyes off of. Robbie’s Harley has accepted that she and the Joker are over, and now she is figuring out “who she is” and “what life is like” for her. It’s like Eat, Pray, Love, but where the character is an incredibly unhinged sociopath with a much more interesting wardrobe and whose idea of fun is hitting people with giant mallets and throwing sticks of dynamite.
BoP plays on the same often-non-linear, broken-fourth-wall narration that works in the Deadpool movies. It also borrows heavily from other movie tropes or outright reuses clichés, and then calls itself out for using them. So the play isn’t so much in the movie’s ability to offer us things that are necessarily new, but to take things that we are already familiar with and then to make them work through the lens of the Harley character.
This works brilliantly. When you accept that the movie and all of its events are filtered through her (unhinged) imagination, and that, in fact, reality sometimes seems to warp here to conform to the way she wants the world to be, then you’re in for the ride. Director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson put together a backdrop to unleash the characters and let the actors step in and deliver fun performances.
While Robbie gets to be at the forefront of most of the fun stuff, her supporting cast get just enough time to establish their characters, have meaningful moments, and then kick a lot of ass. Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Black Canary), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Huntress), Rosie Perez (Renee Montoya), and Ella Jay Basco (Cass Cain) all deliver cinematic versions of their characters that could easily have gotten more screen time.
Some people might be concerned by the levels of violence in this movie. BoP revels in its brutality, and in fact finds the most creative ways to beat, mangle, and dismember random henchmen. And for most of these moments, characters are shown having fun and enjoying themselves while doing it. The way I wound up thinking about it is that it’s actually a live action iteration of a Looney Tunes cartoon. This frees up the film’s reality so that it can explore all kinds of over the top action sequences that even the Fast and the Furious movies would be envious of.
There’s a lot to be said about the levels of creativity and of visual verve that the movie delivers in its action sequences. Its characters—good guys, bad guys, and antiheroes—are for the most part human, or at least they are mostly what would be considered street-level.
Within those limitations they get to do a lot of interesting fight sequences. And hopefully I’m not giving too much away when I say that the action set-pieces, especially when all the main characters or onscreen together, are things that I would be happy to watch over and over.
The movie attempts to counterbalance the madcap sequences with some more emotional beats. These come at varying levels of success; I found it most fun when they would get close to an emotional moment, then undercut it with a gag. And though most of the movie is meant to be fun, there are some pretty dark bits, in particular with big bad Ewan MacGregor’s Black Mask and his right-hand psycho Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz. It looks like both actors hammed it up as schmaltzy villains who, if not for their portrayals, would be mostly generic and forgettable superhero movie bad guys.
I feel that it would be easy enough to find nits to pick with this movie, but I’ll take what it has to offer. It’s pretty much trying to approximate the feeling of going through a carnival rollercoaster while you’re tripping on some serious drugs.
Even as it goes through all those predictable twists and turns, it still manages to get your adrenaline rushing. The movie is energetic, and you can tell that the people involved were enjoying themselves, and that feeling is infectious.
Harley Quinn is taking all the other characters here on a crazy ride, and we would do best to buckle up. – Rappler.com
Carl makes podcasts at PumaPodcast and teaches Creative Writing at the Ateneo Fine Arts Department.