"BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN)" (2020) Review
I never thought Warner Brothers Studios would do a follow up to the 2016 D.C. Extended Universe (DCEU) movie, "SUICIDE SQUAD". Not really. And there are reasons why I had harbored this belief.
Despite being a box office hit, "SUICIDE SQUAD" was poorly received by critics and many moviegoers. Yet, the movie also had its share of fans - including myself - who actually managed to enjoy it. But the Warner Brothers executives were more concerned with the critics' opinions than with box office performance. And since "SUICIDE SQUAD" was strongly associated with the D.C.E.U. films made by director Zack Snyder, I quickly formed the opinion that Warner Brothers would allow the movie to disappear from memory.
So, imagine my surprise when I learned that the studio had green-lighted a movie about the experiences of the Harley Quinn character featured in "SUICIDE SQUAD". I am aware that she was the most popular aspect of the 2016 movie, but I never thought Warner Brothers would approve a follow-up film about her and the formation of the Birds of Prey. So, color me surprised when I learned that this new movie would be made and it would be directed by newbie filmmaker, Cathy Yan.
"BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN)" begins four years after the events of "SUICIDE SQUAD". Off screen, the Joker ends his relationship with fugitive Harley Quinn by tossing her out on Gotham City's streets. After finding an apartment, thanks to a Tawainese restaurant owner she befriends named Doc, Harley became a roller derby player. Meanwhile, crime lord Roman Sionis has decided to become the new crime boss of Gotham following the Joker's disappearance. Due to a drunken Harley's assault on his driver and his memories of past insults, he tries to kidnap her, but the singer at his nightclub - Dinah Laurel Lance aka Black Canary - comes to her rescue. Impressed by Dinah's skills, Roman hires her as his new driver/bodyguard. Roman is also after a diamond embedded with the account numbers to the Bertinelli crime family fortune, who were massacred years ago. However, a young pickpocket named Cassandra "Cass" Cain steals the diamond from Zsasz and swallows it after she is arrested. Friendly with Cass, Dinah decides to become an informer for police detective Renee Montoya to protect the girl. Another person interested in Cass is Harley, who is after the girl and the diamond on Roman's behalf after he threatened to kill her if she does not cooperate. Another person threatening to overshadow everyone else's interests is Helena Bertinelli, a mysterious archer who has been carrying out a series of mob-related killings in revenge for her family's deaths.
On the surface, I was inclined to regard the narrative for "BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN)" as a loose series of subplots that barely connected. But the more I thought about Christina Hodson's screenplay, the more I realized that there is one aspect of the film's plot that strongly connected the subplots. And I am not referring to Harley Quinn. To me, Ronan Sionis aka Black Mask is the cord that connects the various subplots.
Think about it. Due to Harley's breakup with the Joker, he wants criminal control of Gotham City and petty revenge against her for past insults. Ronan had organized the massacre against the Bertinelli crime family with the help of his main enforcer Victor Zsasz, in order to get his hands on the family's diamond. This leads Helena to hunt down members of his crime family. Cassandra "Cass" Cain had managed to steal the very diamond that Ronan wants, leading to her becoming his main target. Dinah Lance was employed as the main talent at Ronan's nightclub, until he hired her to become his driver and a bodyguard. And because of Cass being endangered by Ronan, Dinah had agreed to serve as a spy within the Sionis' crime family on behalf of Detective Renee Montoya. As for the latter, she had been fixated in arresting Ronan for years. And because of this, she ended up being suspected from the police force and searching for Cass and the diamond. "BIRDS OF PREY" could have easily dissolved into a confusing movie that possessed disjointed story arcs. Thankfully, director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson had the good sense to use a strong and dynamic villain like Ronan Sionis as the main link to connect the movie's protagonists' varied subplots.
"BIRDS OF PREY" also featured a rather unique narrative style that reminded me of the first half of "MAN OF STEEL" and "SUICIDE SQUAD" in that it depended on a great deal of story utilizing flashbacks. In the case of "BIRDS OF PREY", the film's narrative use of flashbacks struck me as very colorful and unique - almost with a strong comic book style to it. Mind you, the speed in which the narrative jumps between the past and the present is a bit mind boggling and can force a moviegoer to keep on his or her toes, while watching it. As for the film's action sequences - I enjoyed them, but most of these sequences seemed to be dominated by Harley. It is not until the last major fight sequence in which Harley needs the help of Dinah, Renee and Helena to protect Cassandra from Ronan's goons. And I must say . . . it was a well-shot fight sequence.
As much as I had enjoyed "BIRDS OF PREY", I had some problems with the film. A lot of fans had complimented Harley's warehouse fight against Ronan's thugs, while accidentally inhaling cocaine. Honestly? I found Harley's accidental drug intake rather unnecessary. There was another scene that really annoyed me and it featured Harley’s "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" illusions after being punched by Ronan. It was one of the most pretentious montages I have ever seen in a comic book movie. And very unnecessary. There was also a scene in which Dinah finally used the famous Canary Cry on many of Ronan's thugs in the film's final action scene. After using it . . . she passed out. Why? Why was it so necessary to make her faint after using the Canary Cry? So that she and Renee would not participate in the chase scene featuring Harley, Helena, Cass and Ronan? Having the Black Canary faint after using her Cry irritated the hell out of me.
However, my main problem with the "BIRDS OF PREY" narrative was that two actions by the Joker - his rejection of Harley and departure from Gotham City - kick started the film's story. If the Joker had not rejected Harley, she would have never been forced to re-start her life on her own and play a role in the formation of the Birds of Prey. And Ronan would have never made the effort to elevate his position to Gotham City's top crime lord. So . . . why did the Joker dump Harley? Why did he leave Gotham City? Unfortunately, Hodson's screenplay never provided a reason behind the Joker's actions. In the case of Harley Quinn and the Joker, Warner Brothers could have made a movie depicting their relationship and what led to their breakup. Or . . . Hodson and Yan could have provided some explanation on why the Joker had dumped Harley in the first place. But what I found really baffling was his decision to leave Gotham City. Why did he do it? And why did Hodson and Yan make no effort to explain his disappearance?
I certainly had no problems with the film's performances. Margot Robbie, as usual, gave an energetic and skillful portrayal of the comic book villain. Some have claimed that Robbie's performance in "BIRDS OF PREY" was superior to her performance in "SUICIDE SQUAD", due to how Harley was written in both films.. To each his or her own, I suppose. Personally, I found this claim hard to swallow. I thought Harley's characterization was excellent in both films. More importantly, both films did an excellent job in depicting Harley's character during different periods in her life.
I have only seen Ewan McGregor portray a villain - major or minor - in two other films before "BIRDS OF PREY". And honestly? He should portray villains as often as he can. I thought his portrayal of the narcissist and vindictive Ronan was superb and spot on. I also enjoyed how he managed to inject a bit of homoerotic overtones in Ronan's relationship with his henchman, Victor Szasz. Another performance that I truly enjoyed came from Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Dinah Laurel Lance aka the Black Canary. Smollett-Bell did an excellent job in conveying Dinah's emotional turmoil over her current life and desires. Thanks to the actress' performance, Dinah seemed torn between her disgust and fear of Ronan, her sense of self-preservation, her continuing trauma over her vigilante mother's death and her desire to help others - especially someone like Cassandra Cain. Rosie Perez gave a first-rate, yet colorful performance as the world-weary and alcoholic Detective Renee Montoya. Perez skillfully conveyed Renee's struggles with being underappreciated by her fellow Gotham City Police detectives and being rejected by her ex-girlfriend, District Attorney Ellen Yee. At the same time, Perez's Renee conveyed a steely determination to not only arrest Harley early in the film, but also bring down Ronan at all costs.
"BIRDS OF PREY" proved to be Ella Jay Basco's second movie in a career that spanned at least six years. I thought Basco gave a first-rate, yet subtle performance as the pickpocket Cassandra Cain. Basco managed to form strong screen chemistry with both Robbie and Smollett-Bell. And she also conveyed a talent for sharp and witty dialogue that seemed to come from no where, taking others by surprise. The role of Helena Bertinelli aka the mysterious archer aka the Huntress was a curious one for actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Her role in the film was not as big as the others. And unlike the others, her connection to Ronan was clouded by the fact that she was unaware of Ronan being personally responsible for her family's deaths. Despite having a smaller role than the other protagonists, Winstead gave a memorable performance the ruthless assassin, whose emotional growth, stunted by past trauma, made it difficult for her to connect with others. I have personally not seen Chris Messina in a movie for nearly a decade - not since 2012's "ARGO". But I have to admit that the role of Victor Szaz has to be one of the most fascinating I have ever seen him portray. Messina's Szasz is a brutal, yet observant enforcer with a talent for ass-kissing I have yet to see in any other comic book movie. Not only was Szasz one of Messina's best roles, but I also believe it was his funniest. The movie also featured competent performances from the likes of Steven Williams, Ali Wong, François Chau, Daniel Bernhardt, Dana Lee and Derek Wilson.
Overall, I enjoyed "BIRDS OF PREY" very much. It is not perfect. No movie really is. And I have pointed out that I believe its main flaws came from Christina Hodson's screenplay. But I thought she did a good job in using the Ronan Sionis character to connect the protagonists' subplots in order to form a main one. The cast, led by Margot Robbie, provided excellent and entertaining performances. And Cathy Yan proved that given a chance by the studios, she is a talent to be reckoned with as a director.