HARLEY QUINN: BIRDS OF PREY. Gratitude is ... a good thing, right? Of course it is. And we should probably count ourselves grateful. Because even as the facade of American democracy continues to crumble, as we trudge ever closer toward totalitarianism, destitution and disarray, as winter drags on and tyrants grow more empowered and the movie studios unload their dross, we may be occasionally so lucky as to get a movie like Birds of Prey. Because even if it is only most of a great movie, part of a comic book universe about which I care not a whit — this applies to all such universes — and has so far proven to be a "disappointment" at the box office, it has within it grand and significant things for which I should and do feel grateful. Hopeful? Let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Comics are ostensibly a great covert equalizer, empowering their readers just as their protagonists are given agency by their superpowers (and occasional self-righteousness). The artform famously gives voice to the voiceless, creating strength from weakness and bringing together those who so often feel alone and voiceless and unrepresented. It's not all "We Shall Overcome," though. Like almost everything else, comics can foster a boys' club atmosphere that can in turn create the very circumstance the medium's creators ostensibly work to disrupt: separation, xenophobia, misogyny, misanthropy, whatever you like. Despite efforts toward equanimity, I find the same holds true for the current primary cinematic universes (I can't stand the phrase, but it's what we've got) and, more troublingly, and their widespread cultural consumption. The ladies of Marvel are frequently the most interesting characters in the bunch, but they are even now frequently written as afterthoughts, addenda. And as for DC, home to Harley Quinn, the advent and success of Wonder Woman struck much of the audience as the product of some kind of industrial accident or paranormal activity: "Wait, it's about a girl? But dudes made it, right?"
While I have little investment in the printed source material, what I care about is what's projected on the screen. It can't exist in a vacuum but we'd do well to take each movie on its own merits.
And so I found myself profoundly excited when Birds of Prey (written by Christina Hodson, directed by Cathy Yan) came charging out of the darkness, all candy colors, rough talk and ostensible empowerment. I will try to keep my diminishing enthusiasm in the third act somewhere in the shadow of that initial flash of promise.
Margot Robbie, reprising her role from the lamentable and mostly incoherent Suicide Squad (2016), assays the role of Ms. Quinn, née Harleen Quinzell. She, a hard-drinking maybe-psychopath, finds herself on the outs with her paramour (an unseen Joker). Having sacrificed everything to remake herself in his image, Harley finds herself in a moment of redefinition and clarity. To commemorate the occasion, she blows up the Ace Chemicals factory, birthplace of her now and forever self, and announces that she has washed the boy right out of her chemically scorched hair. Soon enough goons from all over Gotham are at her doorstep, demanding justice for all manner of unpleasantness previously visited upon them by our heroine and her erstwhile partner. Leering and lording over them all, preening maniac Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his blood-letting lapdog Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) see an opportunity to take Harley off the board, but not before conscripting her for some nefarious indentured servitude. There's maybe too much background about a mafia family collectively assassinated in a power grab, a crossbow killer at large (May Elizabeth Winstead), a pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) in possession of a diamond containing coded bank account routing numbers, a lounge singer/driver/bodyguard (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) somehow beholden to Sionis and a long-suffering, oft passed-over cop (Rosie Perez) trying to piece it all together.
For the first two-thirds of the picture, while Harley sets up the narrative and kicks ass in the best-choreographed fight sequences of this young year, there is reason for much rejoicing. The story structure is deceptively freewheeling, bouncing around to the rhythm of Harley's syncopated, manic inner voice, and it is gritty, bright and beautifully photographed by Matthew Libatique. (Much as I hate to compare apples and oranges, I found myself thinking Birds of Prey has more and better moves than Joker.) But as the movie heads toward the climax with a misplaced set-piece in an abandoned amusement park, it literally and figuratively loses the color and the shape of its early acts. Where once there was joy in Harley marauding through a police station with an M79 grenade launcher and putting on a bat-fighting clinic in the evidence lock-up, we are now left with a scattered low-light brawl lacking any true defining characteristics.
For once, though, I'll focus on the positives: I remain grateful that Birds of Prey exists as whatever portion of a great movie it may be. Is there a suggestion of something more profound, more significant within it — a glimmer that might leave us with something like regret? Sure, but I'll rewatch the first hour of this long before I'll revisit anything Avengers. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
— John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.
See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
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— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill