At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Superhero/ Stars: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor, Steven Williams, Dana Lee, Francois Chau, Matt Willig/ Runtime: 109 minutes

I feel it is safe to start this review off by stating an obvious fact: Harley Quinn really truly is a wonderful comic book character. Indeed this is a fact that has always been clear as day to me from her debut on Batman: The Animated Series in the 90s to all the mischief and misadventures filled with varying degrees of chaos that she has been a part of on the pages of DC Comics since then, and yes it was even true when Margot Robbie first brought the character to life in David Ayers’ otherwise unfortunately mehhh DCEU misfire Suicide Squad from a few years ago. Indeed not only is Miss Quinn always a heck of a blast to watch or read about whenever she appears, but it is also extremely obvious that all of the people who have either been able to write stories for her character or who have been able to portray her either vocally or physically also are always thrilled to do so as well.

With that fact in mind then movie goers I definitely feel that you will not be surprised to learn that Harley is the best part of the new DC Comics movie Birds Of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (Thank God they are changing that title because wow that’s a mouthful). Indeed Harley Quinn especially as played by Margot Robbie is such a captivating presence whenever she is on screen in no small part because of the fact that not only is there such a fantastic unpredictability about her character, but also because whenever we get to see how she sees the world around her the results are the most delightful kind of insanity imaginable. With that in mind then dear reader is it any wonder that this film chooses to utilize it’s full knowledge of that fact, and manages to take every opportunity possible to make sure she is the center of attention? Yet great as this fact may be there is an issue within this as well. A problem that takes the form of noticing that “Harley” and “Quinn” are actually some of the last words in a mouthful of a title that also coincidentally starts with the name of one of DC Comics’ most popular female superhero teams. The reason that this is a problem is this film puts such a spotlight on Harley and her antics yet we’re meant to believe that she is supposed to be sharing this particular cinematic outing with not one, not two, but at least the film four other heroines and as such this results in being a truly complex chore to accomplish from a narrative perspective thus causing this film and its story to feel a bit messy at times. Indeed very much like Miss Quinn during the course of this film, this is a film which manages to suffer from indeed a bit of an identity crisis more often than not (a fact that I will even kind of lean into during this review by choosing to refer to this film from here on out as Birds of Prey and nothing else). Yet while this film does ultimately manage to stick the landing and make for an entertaining time at the movies, I feel you should also know that it’s going to be difficult if not impossible to see that this is also a very very uneven cinematic ride to be had as well.

The plot is as follows: Birds of Prey (see I told you) starts with Harley Quinn being broken up with by longtime beau The Joker. To say that she takes this change in her long-term relationship status well might not exactly be the truest statement in the world. In fact I think a truer statement might be she is absolutely and completely devastated to the point that she chooses at first to be completely in denial of just what has occurred, but then chooses to make her situation go from bad to worse when she decides to let all of Gotham know that she and Mr. J are effectively done. A message which takes the form of blowing up the chemical plant where Joker coerced her into showing her love for him by jumping into a vat of chemicals and transforming herself from psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel into the pale-skinned psychotic that she is now. Of course it isn’t long before Harley realizes that, despite her getting the freedom she desires, she has also just managed to send a very obvious message to Gotham’s underworld that she is no longer under the protection of Mistah J thus inspiring every single person with an ax to grind to start coming out of the shadows in order to seek their pound of flesh. Of everyone out to get her however, one of the most deadly has to be psychotic underground crime lord/ night club owner Roman Sionis a.k.a. Black Mask, and trust me when I say that not only does he have a long long list of grievances, but he has been waiting a long long time for a chance at revenge and Harley just gave it to him. However just when events really do seem to be at their absolute pitch black darkest, an opportunity to get out of this mess manages to present itself when Harley learns that Roman has lost track of a diamond courtesy of a young sleight-of-hand that could be his key to total control of the city, and volunteers to help him retrieve it. Of course it isn’t long before this situation is further complicated not only by Harley actually liking the kid, but by a trio of equally-as-powerful women: A detective trying in vain to build a case against Sionis named Renee Montoya, a performer at the Black Mask club who has decided to secretly work for the police against Sionis as a CI named Dinah Lance, and an assassin who has been going around murdering gangsters with a crossbow known only as Huntress. Of course it isn’t long after these women start crossing paths that they realize that if they want to survive Sionis’ homicidal wrath then maybe just maybe they might have to work together…..

Now in its noble and noteworthy task of introducing audience members to a terrific set of characters from the comic book spectrum that haven’t had the pleasure of being brought to the big screen until now, I feel it should be said that Birds of Prey is very successful in this mission as all of the various personalities involved are all three-dimensional and extremely engaging to watch. There is however one small issue, and that would be the aspect of just how 98% of these characters are ultimately placed within the movie’s narrative. Indeed this is because although the film does go the extra mile in showing and telling us about this set of circumstances in the life of Harley Quinn, it really seems like everyone else is just simply existing in someone else’s story and as such are really truly only given a few scenes where they are not around Harley in order to showcase who they are and just how they manage to fit into what exactly is going on in this movie. Indeed it truly does seem like this film found itself struggling with the choice of either telling this narrative solely from Harley Quinn’s point of view, or if it should build up towards eventually becoming a team-up movie and sadly this film never managed to discover a answer. Thus by failing in that, this film finds itself saddled with a truly crippled structure to things that also manages to critically shortchange individuals that really should function as important to the overall narrative.

Yet amidst the negativity there is a positive to be found. Said positive is that the main reason you find yourself wanting to see more of these characters is actually because you enjoy the time with these characters that you are ultimately given. Indeed I feel that each of the main stars in this film, no matter how much screen time that they are given, really truly does make the most of the moments that they are given, and in the process all manage to leave a wonderful impression with audiences as we see that the standouts on the heroine side of things include Mary Elizabeth Winstead who by managing to blend together a palpable sense of rage alongside an incredibly shaky sense of confidence manages to seriously imbue Huntress with a dynamic albeit unusual energy that is definitely worth rooting for and Jurnee Smollett-Bell who in her turn as Black Canary manages to bring some interesting reservations and baggage to the table on account of her just really wanting to keep her head down and not make any major waves until she has no other choice, but to get down and dirty in pursuit of what’s right. On the opposing team however we have Ewan McGregor who, as Black Mask, showcases a true love and relish for virtually every minute of getting to be as sick, narcissistic, twisted, and just psychotic as possible and Chris Messina who in his turn as the psychopathic Victor Zsasz, actually seems like he is having a lot of fun at playing a crazy guy who loves and cherishes the act of getting the order to commit violence as much if not more so than the actually executing said violence as well, and both men together really do a wonderful job of not only giving the audience laughs, but also someone to really root against as well.

As wonderful as the rest of this talented cast truly is however, I still think that it must be said at the end of the day that this is a film which is run, operated, and dominated by Margot Robbie through and through. Indeed despite all the backlash and the negative reception from both critics and the fans that Suicide Squad received one thing that was positively received was Robbie and her portrayal of Quinn as it was strongly felt that she managed to not only have a wonderful understanding of the character, but that she managed to really embody a version of the character that seemed true to the comics. In this movie though Robbie is finally given the opportunity to crank things up to the umpteenth degree and become the cinematic Harley Quinn we all desperately needed to see. Indeed not only does Robbie manage to showcase a sense of phenomenal comedic timing as well as the physicality needed for the role, but she also manages to generate surprisingly genuine empathy when it comes time for the movie to really take a moment to examine both Quinn’s extremely shattered psyche as well as her inner struggle between loneliness and her emotionally dependency on others. Indeed while there aren’t a whole lot of actors who, unlike their Marvel counterparts, have become synonymous with playing DC characters I definitely feel that Robbie has become the exception to this rule. Indeed she IS Harley Quinn and I look forward to seeing her reprise the role in future DC projects.

Now by making the decision to focus significantly more time and energy on the characters that exist in this universe as well as the tone that this movie is going to utilize for it’s 109 minute runtime, I feel it must be said that although Birds of Prey most certainly does not go as expansive as your typical comic book adaptation, it nevertheless is still littered throughout with quite a few memorable moments that really aid director Cathy Yan in her quest of leaving a distinct yet stylistic stamp all her own on a comic book film. With that in mind I think you should prepare yourself then because it is my distinct opinion that never before have you seen so much color and sparkle in a DC Comics film before. Plus when you pair that with absolutely dazzling fight choreography, a sense of high energy, and a well-utilized and chosen soundtrack you ultimately are left with an end result that is quite wonderful work from a filmmaker who has just astoundingly made her first high-profile project, and you just watched it.

All in all I don’t think that it’s any real big secret that the fans of DC Comics or just comics in general out there really truly have been patiently waiting for a while now for Harley Quinn to get her due in her own solo outing. Suffice it to say that the fans got what they wanted because this truly is a great solo film for Miss Quinn…..even if it is also coincidentally I might add lumped into a debut film for the Birds of Prey that is more ehhh at best. Indeed don’t get me wrong this movie is most definitely the very definition of what a mixed bag can and often does look like in Hollywood as there are both positives and negatives to be found herein. Yet at the end of the day the strengths do manage to come away with the W and really go a long way toward helping to ensure that this is still an enjoyable outing to be had courtesy of DC Comics. On a scale of 1-5 I give Birds of Prey a solid 3.5 out of 5.