Imagine Looney Tunes character Tasmanian Devil rampaging through your home in maniacal glee, followed by the mayhem of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner. Add a dash of ball-breaking girl power. Mix everything in a blender. While you’re at it, jump into the blender yourself. That, in essence, is what Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is.
The film brings back the Suicide Squad breakout character Harley Quinn, as played by actress Margot Robbie. This time we see the aftermath of that film from her point of view, which is as disorienting as you can expect from a person who hung out (read: had a relationship with) the Joker. In “Birds of Prey” she has broken up with the Clown Prince of Crime (spoiler alert: no cameos from Jared Leto) which means the entire Gotham City underworld has declared open season on her. Contrary to what R. Kelly said, Gotham is no city of justice and has never been (otherwise what would be the point of a Batman?) and that means different gangster-warlords abound. Enter Roman Sionis/Black (Ewan MacGregor, in an over-the-top performance), and his right-hand-man Zsasz (played by a very creepy Chris Messina).
An attempt to escape the clutches of Sionis leads Harley straight into the converging paths of police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), diamond thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Basco), vigilante Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and lounge-siren-with-a-secret Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell).
The endless chase scenes, explosions, bloodshed, and fight sequences were always in danger of getting old, but surprisingly it never does. Director Cathy Yan exploits Harley Quinn’s unreliability as a stable narrator by going along with her innate craziness as a character and rolls along with it, resulting in the story utilizing flashbacks and flash-forwards like, well, crazy. It is a comic book film featuring some of the darkest comic book characters ever, and its absurdities are embraced without venturing into the realm of the comical (see: the Schumacher Batman movies). It does, however, poke fun at some action tropes such as Montoya’s tendency to talk like an 80s movie cop, or the Huntress’ dark vigilante outbursts. Even the film itself feels like a clever pastiche of Deadpool, Tank Girl, Natural Born Killers, a bit of Run, Lola, Run, and at times a bit of Kubrick thrown in.
There is something to be said about how “Birds of Prey” is being promoted as a girl-power film. Its main characters are women, its director is a woman, its screenwriter is a woman, its lead producer (Robbie) is a woman, and even its soundtrack is female-driven. And while others will keep on praising this fact, it should be noted that the film itself does not feel like it forces the issue on the viewer. The main characters are all messed up in one way or another, be it because of their nature (Harley) or because of how an ego-driven leadership (Montoya) or because of their family history (Cain, Bertinelli, and Lance). This gives them an actual journey, despite their limited screen times–Harley eats up most the narrative, after all–and also creates a tense dynamic that works for this specific set of characters.
Speaking of characters, the weakest part of the film seems to be the Huntress. Turning her into a parody of the angry vigilante with a tragic past might be a great wink-and-nudge to the audience, but it also seemed to have removed much of her personal agency. But then again this is an entire narrative seen from the demented Harley Quinn, so vigilantes should seem like a joke (see what I did there?) to her. This Harley-centric approach might beg the question though: would this movie work without her in it? A Huntress-led film would probably be very different and more serious…and one we will have seen before.
Much can be said about the film’s unapologetic violence. Is the film enjoyable because it presents women–warts and all–with their own agency, or is it because it presents women in a way males would enjoy: executing unrelenting violence? On whose terms was the film made, really? Does an all-female ensemble guarantee a film that speaks about the female condition?
It is, ultimately, a comic book movie. As such it can show the viewers bits of the richness of what it tries to say, but also one that is bound by the absurdities of its conventions. It presents a great case for womanhood, but there are other, richer films that offer more in that regard.
But it does not change the fact that “Birds of Prey” is just mad, crazy fun.
Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) opens in Philippine cinemas today, February 6.