This is a first: a Hollywood superhero movie written and directed by women, featuring a multi-racial female cast, with no male sidekicks or love interests, and a theme about learning to live without a man. It’s groundbreaking, it’s long overdue, and it’s bound to inspire a generation of girls. But does any of that mean that the film in question is any good? The best way to answer that is to glance at its title, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. If you think that title is fabulous – or, indeed, fantabulous – you may well think the same about the film. But if you think it is exhaustingly laboured and twee, you should probably watch something else.
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Your reaction might also depend on how much you like Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the kooky and cutesy psychopath who was introduced in the awful Suicide Squad in 2016, because although Birds of Prey is named after a fledgling crime-busting team, Harley is its central character and narrator, and her glittery Baby-Spice-goes-grunge aesthetic runs through it.
She begins by announcing that she and her boyfriend, the Joker (who isn’t shown, either in his Jared Leto or Joaquin Phoenix incarnation), have had a conscious uncoupling. No longer under the protection of Gotham’s most feared supervillain, she suddenly finds herself being chased through the city’s bustling streets and grimy alleys by her numerous enemies, a predicament that might have concerned us if it weren’t for three factors. Harley is a sadistic homicidal maniac, so the people chasing her are wholly justified. She is so relentlessly smiley that she doesn’t appear to care if anybody hurts her. And she skips away from every confrontation without a scratch, so it’s clear that nobody can hurt her, anyway.
None of this stops her being afraid of the Black Mask, a narcissistic crime lord and second-tier Joker substitute who is played by Ewan McGregor, but who struts and shimmies around his nightclub as if he were played by Nicolas Cage or Sam Rockwell. He is too much of a buffoon to be scary, but Harley nonetheless promises him that she will retrieve a priceless diamond that was stolen from him by a teenage pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). She is helped and hindered in this task by three women who have been mistreated by men: a crossbow-wielding vigilante called Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a singer called Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a police detective called Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).
Perhaps it counts as progress, too, that after so many years when gory, postmodern Tarantino rip-offs were about men, there is finally one that’s about women instead
It isn’t much of a plot; the scenario is really no more than a means to get the various characters into the same room. But the director, Cathy Yan, and the screenwriter, Christina Hodson, disguise this deficiency by having Harley chop up her story into pieces and then put them back together in a different order – just one of the gimmicks which Birds of Prey borrows from the 1990s and 2000s work of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and Danny Boyle. More of a fashion statement than a film, this flashy, sugar-buzzy caper is a barrage of voice-over, captions, freeze frames, flashbacks, animated interludes, and fight sequences which are essentially music videos.
Whenever Harley is caught by one of her foes, a rock song is cranked up to full volume, and she somersaults around the room in slow-motion, merrily breaking men’s legs. That may have been genuinely subversive when Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit Girl did it in Kick-Ass 10 years ago. A decade on, I felt sorry for all the policemen, security guards and innocent bystanders who were hospitalised or killed in every scene.
Still, we’re obviously not meant to worry about them. Yan and Hodson seem to believe that Harley and her newfound sisters are striking a blow for downtrodden women everywhere (just as long as those downtrodden women look like supermodels), and so nothing else matters. Birds of Prey doesn’t have any spectacular imagery, clever twists, or decent punchlines, but because it has lots of swearing, bloody violence, snazzy disco outfits, and girl-power slogans, the viewer is supposed to cheer and high-five, all the same. Watching it is like having someone standing next to you and yelling about how amazingly cool and fun and feminist they are.
Not that it is completely uncool or completely un-fun. Birds of Prey is certainly more coherent than Suicide Squad, and more energetic than the lacklustre Charlie’s Angels reboot, which was Hollywood’s last attempt to assemble a trio of action heroines. Perhaps it counts as progress, too, that after so many years when gory, postmodern Tarantino rip-offs were about men, there is finally one that’s about women instead. However popular the film becomes, though, I doubt that anyone will adore it as much as it evidently adores itself.
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