Margot Robbie is not short of admirers nowadays but her performance in Birds of Prey (and the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn), has to be seen to be believed. I usually feel my brain turning to jelly at the prospect of every new, big-budget superhero flick, but there’s something about this particular lump of bubblegum that lifts it above the pack – and it’s pretty clear Robbie is the reason.
It’s hard to imagine Our Nic or Our Cate playing the deranged, comic-book hellraiser, Harley Quinn. Not only is Harley completely over-the-top, addicted to the adrenaline rush of ultra-violence, she also has a cerebral streak. The character’s beginings – retold in animated form at the start of this movie – is that she was a psychiatrist with a PhD who was assigned the task of examining Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. Instead of getting to the bottom of the villain’s sick mind, she fell for him, and discovered her own inner psychopath.
One of the sources of Harley’s appeal is that she is a white collar professional who has thrown it all away for a life of thrill-seeking debauchery. The more conventional way America’s white-collar professionals unleash their rebellious nature is to buy a Harley-Davidson for occasional use on weekends. Perhaps there’s a hidden message in Harley’s name.
When this story begins, the Joker (who never appears in the film) has just thrown Harley out the door. She is as desolate as any spurned lover, but few jilted girlfriends seek “closure” by sending an oil tanker speeding into a chemical plant, detonating an almighty explosion. Having worked off her frustrations, Harley begins to find out how many enemies she’s made, and how vulnerable she is when no longer the Joker’s charming companion.
Throughout the film she sees off a succession of revenge-crazed homocidal maniacs, each introduced with a freeze frame and an irreverent description. The one villain who lingers is Roman Sionis, a sadistic, aspiring crime king with a penchant for peeling off faces. Putting Ewan McGregor in this role qualifies as one of the mysteries of modern casting. He gives it his best shot as a high camp psycho, but it’s not a good fit.
There’s little to be said for the plot, which serves up a stolen diamond, multiple revenge themes, a non-stop crime wave and a useless police force. Every devices that serves to get characters into the relevant scenes are patently ridiculous. Does it matter?
Director Cathy Yan and scriptwriter Christina Hodson have barely tried to craft a coherent storyline, instead they’ve given us one of the most brutal displays of girl power ever committed to cinema. Not only is the movie written and directed by women, all the music is by female artists. In the delerious, choreographed action sequences that take up most of the running time, the girls invariably emerge on top.
Harley is thrown together with a diverse bunch of women who are obliged to work together to defeat the baddies. There’s Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Amazonian nightclub singer and arse-kicker; and crossbow killer, Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) – who would like to be known as “huntress”, but the name makes eveybody laugh. There’s policewoman, Renée Montoya (Rosie Perez), who pursues justice but falls out of love with the Department; and teen pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Blasco).
One can see a future for these characters, particularly Smollett-Bell, who looks like the love child of Beyoncé and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
At no stage does the story even pretend to take itself seriously. The entire film is punctuated with freeze frames, flashbacks, commentary and self-reflexive nods to every cliché that is invoked. Montoya, for instance, is viewed as an “80s cop”, an instantly recognisable stereotype. There’s a gleeful silliness about Birds of Prey that makes it the anthethesis of Todd Phillips’s Joker – the darkly realistic origin story of Harley’s ex.
Many viewers felt Joker cut too close to the bone, giving us a Gotham City that bore an uncomfortable resemblance to life in any big American city today. The violence, which was only sporadic, had a powerful emotional charge.
Those disgruntled viewers probably expected something more like Birds of Prey, which comes across as a party rather than a morality tale. The rapid, breathless nature of the action scenes are played for comic effect, with every broken bone drawing a yelp of pleasure from the audience.
Yan and Hodson seem to have understood that the most unbearable feature of the superhero genre is not the mindless action (or even the leotards), but the absurd sentimentality in which directors love to wallow. A superhero might be massacring a whole raft of supervillains in one scene and cuddling a puppy in the next. Well… maybe just having a flashback to some suitably grievous childhood incident. These movies are trash aspiring to profundity, but Birds of Prey is perfectly comfortable with only two dimensions.
The running gag in the film that all the violence and bloodshed is part of Harley’s “emancipation” from her failed relationship with the Joker. It’s the equivalent of those movies in which a middle-aged divorcee goes out and rediscovers life. In other movies of this ilk the heroine meets some aging father-of-two salesman in a singles club. In this version she goes on the rampage, waging a one-woman war against the world, with results that are a whole lot more entertaining.
Birds of Prey (and the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn)
Directed by Cathy Yan
Written by Christina Hodson
Starring Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ali Wong
USA, rated MA 15+, 109 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 15 February, 2020