The best thing about the plodding comic book-inspired “Suicide Squad” was Margot Robbie’s performance as Joker’s girlfriend, Harley Quinn. She was the only actor in that movie that didn’t treat the film like a serious documentary about the criminally insane.
For some unknown reason, there is another “Suicide Squad” being made. Until then, the new production based on DC Comics’ most popular female villain, “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” proves that there can be an entire movie featuring those on the wrong side of the law that works.
The success of “Birds of Prey” starts with the twisted tale being told by Harley herself. Her ability to slip from being criminally mad to being a jokester makes her narration the kind of tale that would give Batman nightmares.
Harley ends up in a battle for her life when Gotham City’s second most dangerous villain (behind The Joker) – played by Ewan McGregor – makes Harley and a young girl named Cass the target of every bounty hunter and those looking for a quick buck in the city. The girl has a diamond that holds some big secrets.
Harley gets help from Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Renee Montoya’s (Rosie Perez) in protecting the girl. They are all enemies but know they have to work together to stop the Black Mask.
Cathy Yan has only directed one feature before “Birds of Prey” but her work comes across like that of a veteran director. She’s smart enough to know that “Birds of Prey” would work or fail entirely on the strength of Robbie’s performance. She leans heavily on that and Robbie delivers whether it is an emotional meltdown after breaking up with the Joker or battling her way through endless thugs.
Robbie’s work is very different than the way Joaquin Phoenix approached playing the Joker in “The Joker.” He came at the character with a deep sense of reality making the evil that he does resonate with a horrifying reality. Robbie’s Harley is bad but there’s a slight element of sympathy for the character that keeps Harley from being a reality-bound psychopath.
A chunk of that comes from the script by Christina Hodson who has also penned scripts for the upcoming “Flash” and “Batgirl” feature films. The key element that makes the writing so good is that Hodson never shies away from inserting humor in perfectly timed moments.
Take for an example the fight in an abandon amusement park funhouse. Suddenly, Harley is wearing roller skates as she battles the bad guys. There’s a line that asks how she found time to put on the skates. It’s one of many examples that this film never takes itself seriously.
The supporting Birds of Prey are strong, especially the Huntress who has to keep telling people her super hero name because they want to call her the Crossbow Killer. Winstead brings a comic anger to the role that fits with Robbie’s performance.
There is one glaring weakness and that’s the work by McGregor. His character is supposed to be only a step behind the Joker on the evil scale and narcissistic but McGregor doesn’t attack the role with the kind of comic mania needed to play a bigger than life villain. There were villains in the now defunct FOX series “Gotham: that were much stronger.
Yan takes a page from “Gotham” and Tim Burton’s “Batman” movie to make Gotham City a landscape of desperation and despair. She takes the design of the film to a darker level but doesn’t allow it to become too bleak by the use of lighter moments.
Her staging of the fight scene in the funhouse has so many levels, a single viewing won’t be enough to appreciate the full scope of the battle. It is an instant classic moment in film.
Yan’s balancing of light and dark, Hodson’s solid script and a pitch perfect performance by Robbie make “Birds of Prey” good enough to almost erase the memory of “Suicide Squad.”
The film is based on a comic book character but it is not for little kids. It gets an R for strong violence and language throughout plus some sexual and drug material.
“Birds of Prey” is the only new major movie opening in Bakersfield this weekend.
Grade: Three stars.