Harley Quinn breaks out on her own in this explosive comic book caper
For better or for worse, superhero movies are a dominant force in the film industry. So while there’s a variety of different characters making their way from comic panels to the big screen, it’s growing harder for new entries to stand out from the pack. A spin-off of Suicide Squad – a wildly successful blockbuster but a herculean mess of a movie – might not sound like the best place to find originality, but somehow Birds of Prey makes it work.
Margot Robbie gave her all to some shallow material last time around, but with some different creatives in control, her character can truly be let loose. Separating Harley from her psychotic and abusive relationship with the Joker posed itself as an obstacle, so this film makes their break-up its focus – and finding her own path its aim.
Harley’s been living it up in Gotham’s seedy underbelly, getting a free pass from the likes of crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) on account of her connection to the clown prince of crime. Yet when it becomes public knowledge that she’s single, it becomes open season on the anarchic supervillain. Throw into the mix a priceless diamond, a pickpocket with a bounty on her head, a drunk cop and a mysterious assassin – and you’ve got a powder keg ready to go off in Gotham’s East side.
Many of the movie’s strengths (and weaknesses) lie in the decision to filter this already chaotic situation through the eyes of Harley, whose disorganised narration cuts back and forth between disparate characters and times. This gives us some insight into her haphazard thought process and immerses us in her unique perspective. When we see her blow up a chemical plant, it explodes in an array of colourful fireworks – but seen through the eyes of the police, it’s a much more mundane blaze. The frequent meta jokes and playful structure of the movie can sometimes undercut its rhythm, but it also makes for a memorable and thrilling ride through the mind of Robbie’s anti-heroine.
Harley’s look has changed quite a bit from her last appearance, but her gold dungarees and glittery jackets express much of what made her character so dynamic in the comics. Everything she does is excessive, whether it’s her boundless energy, partying with too much alcohol or talking with a little too much sharing. Robbie has enough charisma and genuine love for the character that it never feels like too much for us, even if every other Gotham City citizen is sick of her. She’s embodying the mayhem of Bugs Bunny, outsmarting her opponents with a quick wit and an irreverent charm.
But Harley isn’t the only woman struggling to find their place in a man’s world. Jurnee Smollett-Bell is captivating as Dinah Lance/Black Canary, backed up by oppressed alcoholic detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and young thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Mary Elizabeth Winstead rounds out the cast as ‘The Crossbow Killer’ – who’d much rather you call her ‘Huntress’. The actress brings some pitch-perfect comic timing to her revenge-driven vigilante, a ruthless killer who practices her one-liners in the bathroom mirror and can barely keep a conversation going. Each of these women are caged, whether it’s by trauma, controlling men or institutional corruption – and come together to fight more than just a mad crime boss. Christina Hodson’s script isn’t heavy-handed with its themes, and makes sure to showcase distinct personalities and motives before the bullets start flying.
It’s fitting for this story of women breaking out of mental imprisonment that the villain is everything all about control. McGregor’s antagonist is obsessed with his ‘things’, from his collection of masks stolen from other cultures to his childish obsession with owning the people who dare to rebel. His performance elevates what could have otherwise been an on-the-nose metaphor, extravagantly dressed and flamboyant even in his most horrifyingly violent episodes. He’s a turbulent cocktail of Jessica Jones’ Killgrave and The Incredibles’ Syndrome, with a dash of Iron Man 2’s Justin Hammer and tantrums worthy of Kylo Ren.
The action doesn’t just rely on its bone-crunching hyper-violence, as there’s some inventive fight choreography that is both character-orientated and purposeful. Huntress is stealthy and efficient, Montoya is a messy brawler, and Harley is elaborate and acrobatic, each of these styles coming together for an action sequence that plays out like a demented remix of Adam West’s Batman or a hostile takeover of the Batman Forever set. Thankfully, director Cathy Yan knows when to rein in the insanity and go for drama, giving us real stakes and some context to the people behind the chaos.
Birds of Prey is one of the few superhero movies of late that doesn’t have anything to prove, nor is it bending over backwards to serve the greater cinematic universe. Rather than getting bogged down in expectations or settling for average, they’ve taken the one highlight from a lesser movie and given some new voices the chance to make something of it.
Far exceeding her first cinematic appearance, Harley Quinn is brought to life by Robbie in much the same way that Robert Downey Jr. embodied Tony Stark or Chris Evans perfected Steve Rogers. She might have been more effective taking a backseat for the sake of developing the other characters, as she’s best as the wildcard rather than the heart of the movie. The film is often scattershot, much like Harley herself, and a few sequences fall prey to some fairly bland cinematography, but when the movie hits its stride it breezes by, leaving you longing to see these characters again.
Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is available to own digitally from Friday 24th April
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