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“Birds of Prey:” A ‘Fantabulous’ Flight That Could’ve Soared but Didn’t

Did Harley Quinn get emancipated in her latest film, or did she fall prey to another trap made for the post-breakup woman? KARL R DE MESA asks such questions in this spoiler-free review of “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.)”

W hen you watch “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,)” you can expect to see the titular character flying the coop that is her former relationship. But, don’t expect her to be a different type of bird this time around.

In her second cinematic outing, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn hasn’t changed much from her Suicide Squad involvement in 2016. In fact, if you hated it, it is likely that you’ll be running for the cinema doors within 5 minutes of this one. Here, Quinn is even louder; she is sassier, she has much more manic verve and is more likely to be violent at the drop of a slur. Hence, the opening scene: she crushes a man’s legs for calling her a “dumb slut” (we’re told later on it’s actually the “dumb” part that hurt her).

She’s a writhing ball of embodied id–reckless, lustful, impetuous, and loveable while being a misfit. But, therein lies the problem: that’s all she really is. This Harley Quinn is a Frankensteined collection of psychological maladies masquerading as the shoddy and less-psychotic mirror image of her beau, The Joker. She is a sideshow without a main act. And sadly enough, director Cathy Yan seems to have tried her hardest to cover up all the blemishes and weaknesses resulting from this. She used breakneck pacing and all the colorful, Looney Tunes action glam she could muster to make this as fun a watch as possible.

Give Yan credit for dying on her shield’s creative convictions, though. That’s exactly what we get here in this cinematic equivalent of rainbow cotton candy; it’s nutritionally thin, sickeningly flavorful, and—because of its intrinsic deficiencies—quite forgettable. Nevertheless, if the film is a weapon, its equivalent is Harley’s glitter shotgun: sure it’s non-lethal and fills your crevices and eyes full of sparkly shreds but it also packs a stunning wallop.

B irds of Prey” is the 8th film in the DC Extended Universe. It’s also the first to be rated R. Set after the Encantress’ defeat in Suicide Squad, the film follows the fallout of Quinn’s literal emancipation from her criminally insane boyfriend, the Joker. He kicked her out, rescinded his protection and thrust her into a world filled with people who want her dead. Among them is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor,) aka the supervillain Black Mask, Gotham’s most narcissistic criminal gangster.

Fortunately for Quinn, she isn’t alone. Soon enough, she is put on a collision course with other women trying not to get killed by Sionis: a young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco,) a 1980s-style cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez,) a mob heiress turned crossbow assassin Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead,) and a nightclub singer Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell.) These women are the Birds of Prey—or at least they will be since this turns out to be the origin story of their future girl gang.   

Covering about 109 minutes, Birds of Prey has a number of moments that make it a watchable effort. For starters, there’s a breathless quality that I appreciate in how we’re hurried through one action set piece to the next; how Quinn brazenly stages a single-woman assault on a police station with a glitter shotgun. Her tough gal New York street brawling arts is a sight to behold and could be right up there with some of the more insane Die Hard kamikaze ideas if this weren’t a DC comic book movie, that is. In that respect, it’s way better than David Ayer’s Suicide Squad.  As an agent of chaos, I expected nothing less from a woman formerly known as Harleen Quinzel, she of the tormented childhood; she who was a great academic and psychiatrist who unfortunately met The Joker, fell in love, and got coaxed to jump into a vat of toxic chemicals to prove her love.

Then there’s Zsasz. While McGregor as Roman is like the B-grade villain you get for not investing enough crime in your criminal life, what makes him fun to watch is his banter with his henchman Zsasz, a self-scarring sadomasochist that Chris Messina actually knocks out of the park. Out of all the characters, only Zsasz could actually command some attention that approached gravitas but his supporting role is relegated to face-peeling glee or soothing his boss’s excitable temper.        

Overall, there are some pretty moments scattered throughout the film (like how Quinn’s longing for a perfect egg sandwich leads to a tragic end.) That said, there really is no replacing empty calories for the full meal of narrative meaning. And while nobody’s saying you can’t make a Bad Boys-style razzle-dazzle action movie starring women with brash balls being badasses among explosions, fisticuffs, and cursing jive talk, neither do we expect another sustained and incisive meditation on psychopathy that was Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker.

For one, Quinn’s story as a spurned woman presents plenty to explore about how other women’s stories might be emblematic and reflective of her own abuse, degradation, and scorning. There were certainly plenty of opportunities in “Birds of Prey” to do that but neither Yan nor Christina Hodson’s script seemed to want to cater to any of those chances for a clear, unflinching look at how Quinzel got to be Quinn. There’s a tattoo of “ROTTEN” on Quinn’s cheek which likely answers the question if she (and this movie) has an actual soul.

Still, nothing wrong with a bit of fun with guns and glitter and gin with the girls.  Robbie crazy grins her way through the film trying with all her Oscar-nominated thespian skills to embody and enliven the empty husk that is Quinn’s character, while Yan, crazy grits her teeth trying with all her directorial prowess to breathe life into this mishmash of dead-end plot points, red herring catharses, and New Age axioms masquerading as feminist declarations of liberation.

Nevertheless, after watching this, I can’t help but ask myself: did Harley Quinn really emancipate herself or did she fall prey into a trap made for the post-breakup woman? Guess I’ll just wait for the sequel to find out.  

Rated R-16, “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is now screening in Philippine cinemas.

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