What price girl-power? Does the positive energy of a female-centric comic book movie—made by women—compensate for the nihilistic, super-violent nature of its content? Is this really a step forward for women, behind the camera and in the audience? That’s the conundrum presented by Birds of Prey (full title Birds of Prey And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)….now re-titled Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.
Harley Quinn, the playfully perverse D.C. character who made her screen debut in Suicide Squad, has a vast following. She is brought to vivid life once more by Margot Robbie. The movie also features four other kick-ass women, one of them an adolescent girl. But these potty-mouthed females engage in the kind of mindless violence that actually hurts to watch. (Spoiler alert: Harley sets a man’s bushy beard on fire, engulfing his face in flames.)
You see, Harley has just broken up with longtime boyfriend Joker and finds herself without a protector, even though she can fend for herself quite well. Her only allies, when all is said and done, are other disaffected women: veteran cop Rosie Perez, who’s been maligned by her own department, awkward, crossbow-wielding Mary Elizabeth Winstead, nightclub singer Jurnee Smollet-Bell, who’s under the thumb of the villain, and young Ella Jay Basco, a resourceful pickpocket who uses her street smarts to survive in an environment where friendship and loyalty don’t seem to matter.
We’re invited to cheer for these unlikely cronies, which is easy to do since all the men we encounter are nasty, led by a slimeball (Ewan McGregor) who sees himself as the kingpin of Gotham City. His broad performance takes its cue from the tonal quality of the movie as a whole.
Loud, garish, and overlong, Birds of Prey marks the Hollywood directing debut of Cathy Yan, whose last film was Sundance pick Dead Pigs. Supported by an army of artists and technicians, she makes the most of an anarchic screenplay by Christina Hodson, who’s already busy with adaptations of The Flash and Batgirl for D.C. It remains to be seen whether they will be anywhere near as grim and gruesome as Birds of Prey. I sincerely hope not.