Sunday 16 February 2020

Birds of Prey by Christina Hodson

I had very low hopes for this Harley Quinn movie, because the first one was so bad...

Suicide Squad was just wretched. Which was odd, because its writer and director — David Ayer — is very talented indeed.

But Ayer specialises in war movies and cop dramas, at which he excels. The format of a successful comic book film apparently eluded him. Suicide Squad was an assembly line of pointless fights with anonymous monsters.

The only good and memorable thing in it was Margot Robbie as Harley.

Now Robbie is back not just as the star but also the producer of Birds of Prey. And the new movie is, to borrow its own language, fantabulous. I was knocked out, and more than a little surprised.

Margot Robbie is a big fan of Quentin Tarantino, and Tarantino's influence shows in Birds of Prey, which partakes of the primary-colour pop-culture ultraviolence and fractured timeline of his films such as Kill Bill.

And, unusually for a comic book movie, it has a genuine engine to drive its drama, in the aching injustice of the way women are treated by men.

At first it looked like this film had stacked the deck by making its male characters two-dimensional caricatures (some might say it would be poetic justice if it had, and fair payback)...

But then Ewan McGregor's ludicrously camp portrayal of the bad guy suddenly began to work — when he shows Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) his collection of shrunken heads — "Look at their little ears!" he enthuses.
And Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn is a constant delight. When she's deprived of her post-hangover breakfast bacon and egg roll, we feel for her. "You killed my sandwich," she tells the cop who tackles her.

Soon it's payback time for the "pigs" — as Harley calls them — in the shape of a terrific and  non-lethal attack that she mounts on a police station. 

Birds of Prey is, admittedly, basically a string of fight scenes. But they're really good fight scenes, and there's much more real emotion underpinning them than you normally get.

And that's not the only real emotion in the movie. The deprived lives of the characters are amusingly highlighted in a poignant gag whereby Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco) reveals that she actually thinks Wal Mart is a "fancy ass" store — and so does Harley.

There's also a double betrayal at the heart of the movie that actually hurts.

None of which gets in the way of the fight scenes. The big climactic battle at the fun house near the end of the movie really works. It's not only a great location — eye popping pop-art sets courtesy of designer K.K. Barrett — but there's genuine force in the confrontation.

Because it's women uniting against the men who have harmed them and oppressed them.  And in case that sounds dull and worthy, it's anything but. It's great fun. ("Sexy and bullet proof," says Harley as she equips one of her comrades with a bullet proof vest.)

A genuinely effective grand finale for a comic book movie is a tremendously rare thing. Even the otherwise perfect Wonder Woman failed at this — it had a dreary battle with an end of level monster for its climax. 

But Birds of Prey succeeds absolutely. And it coasts down beautifully afterwards through some excellent smaller action scenes and some great character stuff — "You slippery fingered little turd," says Harley with admiration to Cassandra, the teenage pickpocket. Then later, as she buys margaritas for her crew, "You drink, right, kid?"

There's even a touching moment when Harley's reunited with her pet hyena, Bruce. Plus she gets her breakfast sandwich after all.

Birds of Prey is written by Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) and directed by Cathy Yan.

With women writing, producing and directing, this distaff DC blockbuster really delivers the goods.

(Image credits: That's what we like to see. A choice of no less than 18 posters at Imp Awards.)

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