Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
The bad girl gets her own movie. And she’s got a full-grown devoted, loving hyena for a pet. As Harley Quinn sweetly feeds Twizzlers to the adoring beast, it’s hard not to share his affection for this goofy, tattooed, sexy gal. Fans will dig it.
DC and Warner Bros. find their R-rated answer to Marvel’s “Deadpool” with the wise-cracking, violent, and irreverent Harley Quinn. This one’s far better than 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” The one bright spot from that critical mess was Margot Robbie as Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, a psychologist who fell for the Joker while working at Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum. After becoming the Clown Prince of Crime’s smitten kitten, Quinzel transformed into Harley Quinn (a name based on “Harlequin”). Under the insane criminal’s tutelage, she blossomed into a full-fledged super-villain.
But when “Birds of Prey” begins, the end has come to her relationship with the Joker, who she fondly calls “Puddin.” No longer under the feared crime boss’ protection, Quinn is forced to make her way on the dangerous, crime-ridden streets of Gotham. And because she’s got so many enemies, more than one hard-hitter angles to take her out.
The set-up is a dizzying collection of often violent sequences featuring Quinn engaged in a series of incidental battles. Her daffy, care-free attitude keeps her alive. If Quinn has any real superpowers, they take a backseat to her remarkable ability to get out of any jam, usually by blind luck alone.
That’s not to say that this girl doesn’t pack a punch, both physically and intellectually. Possessing the athletic prowess of a trained gymnast crossed with a martial arts master, Quinn is a formidable match for most any foe—man, woman, or beast. And no beast can resist her girlish charms, ask her steadfast toothy prized pet.
Since Quinn’s brand of crazy is now no longer at the service of the Joker, another up-and-coming criminal loon, Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), seeks to make use of her particular talents. Sionis likes to masquerade as the villain Black Mask, wearing, well, a black mask. His second in command is the nasty Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), who has a passion for peeling off people’s faces. They make a creepy and disagreeable twosome, but Messina and McGregor inject an unusual, possibly homoerotic, quality to the characterizations that make them fun to watch.
McGregor is in rare form here. Playing second fiddle to the unseen Joker, his unhinged Sionis has big ideas. He wants to become a major player in the city’s criminal industry. And in Gotham, crime is big business. Harley Quinn’s world might look something like ours, but it’s a fantasy place in which crime is a way of life for almost everyone.
As killers of all stripes pursue Quinn continuously, she accidentally falls in with several other misfits, including Detective Montoya (Rosie Perez), a good cop whose success is stolen by her male co-workers. Sionis’ driver, Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), reluctantly befriends Quinn. It’s Lance who holds a secret that makes her uniquely dangerous. And when they meet the cross-bow wielding Helena Bertinelli, aka The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the Birds of Prey are born.
“Birds of Prey” is not a complete, coherent narrative. The film serves as a platform to introduce fantastic characters, giving them things to hit, kick, shoot, and slash. It works best when the movie embraces the wicked and dark campy elements that made the Tim Burton films enjoyable and endeared the 1960s Batman television series with viewers. Even though this film is rated-R and is about an amoral villain turned antihero, there’s something undeniably wholesome about it all. Wholesome on the inside, of course, because on the outside, it’s a boozy, bone-crunching, four-letter word with tight-fitting clothing cut to reveal the latest edgy tattoo or seductive curvature.
I had a lot of fun with “Birds of Prey.” Harley Quinn is an infectious character, for sure. And Robbie seems born to play her. Little known director Cathy Yan (see 2018’s “Dead Pigs”) strikes the right tone, relying on brisk pacing that leaves little time to dwell on moral conundrums.
If there is an overarching theme, it’s undoubtedly female empowerment. After all, this is a handsome, well-executed production that’s women driven from top to bottom, with a script from Christina Hodson, who last gave us the critically lauded Transformers spin-off “Bumblebee.” And since the central protagonist is on the rebound from a relationship with an abusive psychopath, Harley Quinn is a superhero contradiction for these gender charged times.
Now fully emancipated from the Joker, Harley Quinn makes her mark on the superhero landscape. Her coming-out party is a brightly colored, often salacious viewing experience. The inevitable next one should contain more of the same, but, one would hope, it will also feature some emotional gravitas revealing what drives this girl’s punk rock worldview.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com