“She just publicly updated her relationship status.” Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a shotgun blast of pure pop riot grrl anarchy. Just the slap in the face “bro culture” has needed. And will continue to need.

Director Cathy Yan and producer/star Margot Robbie, working from a script by Christina Hodson, have crafted a beautifully forward-leaning day-glo antithesis to the retrograde sludge that was Suicide Squad (the precursor to Birds of Prey wherein Robbie’s “Harley Quinn” made her scene-stealing debut). One could even argue that Birds of Prey is a razor-barbed bookend to the exquisite existential angst of DC Entertainment’s Oscar-winning Joker.

The set up of Birds of Prey is that Harley has finally broken up for good with her boyfriend: yes, The Joker. Not Joaquin’s superior “Mistah J,” but Jared Leto’s inferior one – the tattooed, gold-toothed, overacting, “Hot Topic” fever dream one from Suicide Squad. Their breakup involves blowing up a chemical factory because, you know … comic books. As Rosie Perez’ world-weary and whimsically hard-boiled Detective Renee Montoya observes, “She [Harley] just publicly updated her relationship status.” Robbie is divine as Harley. Full of madcap poignancy, unencumbered by the cinematic fetishization she and the character suffered in Suicide Squad.

Alas, freeing herself from one hotbed of toxic masculinity just throws Harley into the deep end of a pool of abusive, egomaniacal, swaggering male bullsh*t as every thug in town now sees Harley as fair game. Leading the pack is Ewan McGregor’s sadistic Roman “Black Mask” Sionis and his sleazy, murderous, codependent wingman Mr. Zsasz (a fabulously glowering Chris Messina). McGregor literally gnaws at every splinter of scenery in one of his best performances – all fluttery hands, gritted teeth and coiled self-loathing.

Eventually the film adds a serpentine plot line about a diamond and a hidden family fortune, tied to a mafia family entirely gunned down years ago with only one “lost” survivor. Think Anastasia by way of The Jersey Shore. As Birds of Prey gathers momentum, like a pinball careening through a Rube Goldberg contraption, Harley partners up with Detective Montoya as well as a scrappy street thief Cassandra Cain (charming Ella Jay Basco), sonically superpowered club singer Black Canary (sparkling Jurnee Smollett-Bell of Roll Bounce and The Great Debaters), and socially maladjusted but utterly a$$-kicking Huntress (dynamite – as always – Mary Elizabeth Winstead of Fargo and Sky High).

There is a buoyancy to the entire film that is utterly infectious. The sheer joy these actors seem to be having playing women in command in a world out of control is a delight. I’m not one to care much for fight scenes or action sequences, but the balletic, athletic choreography on display here is Gene Kelly meets Sly Stallone, Bob Fosse meets Jackie Chan, if filmed by Vincente Minnelli. When a climactic car chase involves one of the characters on roller skates, you may be in for a treat.

The film reminded me of Drew Barrymore’s reboot of Charlie’s Angels, now 20 (!) years old. A film by women and about women, reclaiming a genre (action/superheroes) which has been far too long dominated by men (and, worse, by men of a certain stunted emotional development). Go for the hijinks, stay for the surprising depth of character development, and linger for the final scene as the women celebrate their victory over tacos and margaritas, sharing camaraderie and conversation and honest appreciation for their common humanity. Far too few films – let alone comic book epics – end on such an affirming note. Keep ‘em coming.

P.S. Spoiler alert for my animal loving friends, but Harley’s hyena “Bruce” makes it to the end of the film just fine. 😉

I leave you with these lyrics from one of the songs in the film, the lyrics of which I think encapsulate the flick nicely. From Birds of Prey soundtrack cut “Smile” by Maesie Peters: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=X0exh-UHsjg

[Chorus]
Got bridges to burn and places to run
Yeah, this smile is a loaded gun

[Verse 1]
It’s my party, my body, my business
It’s my town and my crown on my hitlist
It’s my world and you’re just living in it
Did I, did I, did I finish?
They are my girls, and it’s us who’s deciding
It’s our door, did we say you’re invited?
Leave your name and we’ll call if we like it
If we, if we, if we like it

[Pre-Chorus]
No more Mrs. Sweet and Miss Nice
No more Mrs. Fuckin’ Polite
Time for Mrs. Takin’ What’s Mine
You don’t need him

[Chorus]
Got bridges to burn and places to run
Yeah, this smile is a loaded gun

[Verse 2]
It’s my party, my body, my business
If he tries to control me, he’s finished
Won’t be crying, there’s plenty of fishes
And I, and I, and I’m fishin’
You should know that you won’t find another
Who will ruin your life then your brother’s
Who will take what she’s owed when she wants to
Did I, did I, did I stutter?

“Let me guess. We’re going to the swirling ring of trash in the sky now. When does this end?” Suicide Squad

Suicide_Squad_(film)_Poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I think I’m supposed to hate Suicide Squad, at least according to Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe I’m just a contrarian or I truly do have lousy taste, but I was entertained by David Ayer’s scruffy take on DC Comics’ classic Dirty Dozen-homage. Could it have been better? Um, yeah. Is it some cosmic train wreck that has destroyed cinema forevermore? Nope.

In full disclosure, my objectivity may be clouded. A bit. I still have the sense memory of holding the first issue of John Ostrander/Kim Yale’s 1987-comic-reimagining in my grubby eighth grade hands. (See cover below.) Suicide Squad had been around since the 60s, but, under the watch of husband/wife team Ostrander and Yale and inspired by the then-recent DC Universe-rebooting one-two punch of Crisis on Infinite Earths and Legends, the Squad went from being a dull paramilitary outfit (a cut-rate Mission: Impossible) to a gonzo bucket of colorfully costumed sociopathic misfits who agreed to take on covert missions in order to commute time from their lengthy prison sentences.

Suicide_Squad_Vol_1_1

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ostrander and Yale galvanized the team around new character Amanda Waller, the Squad’s tough-as-nails government handler for whom Machiavelli and Mussolini were likely matinee idols, and the Squad’s adventures became a bruise-black satire on the endemic overreach and inhumanity inherent in America’s military-industrial complex and criminal justice system.

Funny how little things change in 30-some years.

As Warner Brothers’ DC Entertainment continues to play catch up with the brighter, more engaging, critically acclaimed work of direct competitor Disney’s Marvel Studios, DC’s latest cinematic adaptation Suicide Squad plays well to the insiders (geeks like yours truly) but may stumble a bit with the casual moviegoer. That’s a shame. This material is rife with opportunity for timely and pithy allegory in a world where terror is combated with more terror and where politicians distinguish themselves through schoolyard taunts. Ostrander and Yale were pretty damn prescient.

Regardless, Suicide Squad is a pip, particularly in its first hour; Ayer, via narrator Waller (played with crisp gravitas by the ever-dependable Viola Davis [Prisoners]), fires off a visceral roll call of the scuzziest villains this side of Roger Ailes. Margot Robbie (The Big Short) as Harley Quinn, Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) as Deadshot, and Jai Courtney (Divergent) as Captain Boomerang have the most arresting (pun intended) moments throughout, popping off their glib one-liners with an undercurrent of soulful pathos. Jay Hernandez (Friday Night Lights) as the tragic El Diablo and Joel Kinnaman (Robocop) as the Squad’s field lieutenant Rick Flag are compelling and pleasantly understated, given that, respectively, one shoots fire from his hands and the other is dating a sorceress. You know, just a typical Tuesday.

Other cast members get a bit lost in the movie’s manic shuffle of CGI zombies and its “Now, THAT’S What I Call Hip-Hop” soundtrack. Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns) as Enchantress, Karen Fukuhara as Katana, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (The Bourne Identity) as Killer Croc eke out a memorable moment or two in this overstuffed flick, which is more credit to their talents than to Ayer’s screenplay.

Oh, yeah, and then there’s Jared Leto. The Joker. I may be in the minority, but I find Leto exhausting and a bit desperate. Always have. I believe his revelatory and nuanced and humane turn in Dallas Buyers Club may have been the exception and not the rule for his particular filmography.

Leto’s work in Suicide Squad as The Joker makes Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter look like Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski. Leto has expressed some crabbiness that so many of his scenes in Suicide Squad ended up on the cutting room floor. The powers-that-be (and whatever ADHD-addled focus group edited this thing) should have cut them all.

Yet, the narrative is stubbornly beholden to shackling Robbie’s much superior Harley Quinn to her comic book beau onscreen. To be honest, Harley would have been just fine without her “Mistah J.” And so would we.

After the first hour, alas, Suicide Squad devolves into the kind of muddy, mundane comic book movie that typically inflicted cinemas in the 90s. An ill-defined villain stands on a rooftop somewhere waving his/her arms around and speaking in an ominously metallic voice borrowed from the witness protection program. A sea of computer-generated minions construct a death-ray/cloud-thing that will annihilate humanity and demolish a number of stop-motion-photographed international landmarks along the way. Consequently, Suicide Squad isn’t a movie about which you should give much thought after viewing … but it could have been.

Ayer (End of Watch) is sharp enough to assign Smith’s Deadshot a quip about how silly and cliched that apocalyptic denouement can be (yet somehow the filmmaker is too lazy to actually devise a fresh third act). Smith intones, “Let me guess. We’re going to the swirling ring of trash in the sky now. When does this end?” Indeed, that is the question. I’m guessing Marvel’s acerbic Deadpool would have had an answer. And an inventive one. Maybe Will Smith and Ryan Reynolds can plot a cross-studios team-up for their next outing.

___________________

05012016-Suicide-Squad

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). 

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.