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Schultz reviews: ‘Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey’

Schultz reviews: ‘Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey’

Carl Schultz


“Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 109 Minutes, Rated R, Released Feb. 7:


“Birds of Prey,” the new DC Comics-based action adventure from Warner Bros. Pictures, highlights the continuing adventures of Harley Quinn, the heroine of the surprise hit 2016 picture “Suicide Squad.” Now a hard-drinking, pole dancing, hearty-partying roller derby queen, Harley’s broken up with her unfaithful boyfriend, Batman’s traditional arch-enemy The Joker ... but still finds herself perpetually at odds and on the run from the forces of law and order.


Just to bring everybody up to speed, the new “Birds of Prey” is a lateral follow-up, but not a sequel, to 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” Based on a series of comic books published by Marvel Comics’ perennial rival DC, “Suicide Squad” was sort of a high-octane ripoff of “The Dirty Dozen” in which a dirty half-dozen hardened criminals with highly-specialized superhuman abilities are temporarily released from their high security confinement.


The 2016 picture depicted the title group’s mission to rescue an important government operative taken hostage in a hostile New York-type metropolis by an ancient spirit who looked a lot like the demonic Zuul at the end of “Ghostbusters.” The task was something like a suicide mission for the criminals, hence the picture’s title. Anyway, when the Suicide Squad was offered an opportunity to escape before completing their mission, the gang elected instead to stick around and finish the job. So we know they have team spirit, and even honor of a sort.


Got all that? It’s sort of important.


Starring Will Smith as Deadshot, the leader and linchpin of the group of criminals, and Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis as the government official in charge of their release, the 2016 picture also featured a supporting performance as Jared Leto as a toxic, unhinged, and genuinely scary incarnation of The Joker, the traditional nemesis of DC Comics superhero Batman. But the real breakout star of “Suicide Squad” was Margot Robbie as the flamboyant, and flamboyantly disturbed, super-criminal Harley Quinn (harlequin — get it?).


A kind of amped-up, hallucinatory vision of Barbie with a painted face, rainbow neon-colored hair, red and blue sequined hotpants and lipstick-stained teeth, the cheerfully psychotic, baseball bat-wielding Harley Quinn was originally a respectable psychiatrist named Dr. Harleen Quinzel. Quinzel worked at Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum, where she was assigned to treat the imprisoned Joker following his capture. Instead, she was seduced and brainwashed by the crazed super-criminal and reborn as Harley Quinn, his loyal girlfriend and partner in crime.


In the movie as in the comic book series, Harley Quinn despite her decidedly unsympathetic demeanor proved to be a genuine fan favorite. Possibly the character became so popular because of all the members of the Suicide Squad, only Quinn seemed both unrepentant and optimistically resigned to her tragic fate, determined to wring as much fun and enjoyment as possible out of her short, fast, tragic life. “People like us, we don’t get ‘normal,’” she sighs philosophically at one point in “Suicide Squad.”


Unlike their counterparts at Marvel Entertainment, the DC Comics-based movies have a checkered history at the box office. It often seems as if a new Marvel-based movie is released almost seasonally, and that each is a financial blockbuster earning even more money at the box office than the one which preceded it. “Avengers: Infinity War” and its sequel, “Avengers: Endgame,” were released precisely one year apart, with the Marvel-based “Ant Man and the Wasp” and “Captain Marvel” released in the interim. And all four pictures had interconnecting plot lines.


The frequency and quality of Marvel-based productions is partly a result of ownership. Since 2009, the Marvel Entertainment Group has been the property of the powerhouse Walt Disney Studios. With an estimated $194 billion in assets, the Walt Disney Studios organization has almost unlimited resources to lavish on the quality of their Marvel-based products. The audience returns the investment because viewers know the entertainment value of the Disney/Marvel features are virtually unmatched. Within months of their release, both 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” each banked over $2 billion in box office earnings. That’s billion, with a B, as in a thousand million.


By contrast, years sometimes pass between individual DC Comics pictures. Three years separated 2013’s “Man of Steel” from its direct sequel, 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” With a net worth estimated at $5 billion, Warner Bros. Pictures have only a fraction of the resources of the mammoth Disney company, and their DC Comics-based pictures maintain generous but very firm financial overheads. With a few exceptions — notably filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy of pictures released in 2005, 2008, and 2012 — the quality of the pictures in the DC series has been highly variable.  


Additionally, even the loyal fans of DC Comics have expressed dissatisfaction with certain casting decisions: Actors Henry Cavill as Superman and Ben Affleck as Batman have reportedly been dismissed from future DC pictures due to lukewarm fan response to their characterizations and disappointing financial returns on the pictures in which they appear. Actor Christian Bale as Batman retired his cape and cowl with the completion of 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” the third and final picture in Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed trilogy. Although based on the character from DC’s Batman series, the 2019 film “Joker,” starring the Academy Award-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix, is a stand-alone film and not a part of a continuing series of superhero pictures.


All of which made the success of 2016’s “Suicide Squad” something of a delightful surprise for Warner Bros. Pictures. Neither the Suicide Squad nor the Birds of Prey series of comic books enjoy the name recognition of DC’s heavyweight Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman brands ... but the “Suicide Squad” motion picture adaptation posted Marvel-like returns at the box office on the investment of Warner Bros. Pictures, earning some $746.8 million in ticket sales on a budget of $175 million.  


In other words, “Suicide Squad” was sequel bait for distributor Warner Bros. And during the final moments of the picture, while the other surviving members of the team were returned to high security imprisonment to complete their sentences, Harley Quinn was liberated from her Hannibal Lecter-style cage by her unfaithful boyfriend, The Joker. So until Warner Bros. could successfully organize a full-scale “Suicide Squad” reunion and sequel, the studio decided to produce “Birds of Prey” before Harley Quinn’s “Suicide Squad” popularity subsided entirely.


“Birds of Prey”  — the full, official title of the picture is the unwieldy “Bird of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” — features a shallow, freewheeling plot tied to the recovery of a missing diamond, which has been embedded with the account numbers of the bank accounts containing the enormous fortune of the late Bertinelli crime family. The diamond’s been unwittingly stolen by a young pickpocket named Cassandra Cain ... who swallowed it.


With its flashy graphics, impressive stunt work, and dubious morality (“I have all my best ideas drunk,” says Harley Quinn at one point), “Birds of Prey” is lighter in spirit than “Suicide Squad,” but otherwise pretty much cut from the same cloth. Sort of a stylishly grungy, ultra-violent 2020 update of the old “Batman” television series from the 1960s, minus Batman, “Birds of Prey” is a bubble gum picture filled with soda pop fizz and candy coloring disguised as grown-up entertainment. Your enjoyment of the picture is directly proportional to your tolerance for loud, brash, neon-lit noise — for some it’ll be noxious, and for others it’s nirvana. And if you’re looking for a message or a moral, you’d best look elsewhere.


“Birds of Prey” isn’t exactly a vanity project for Margot Robbie, although the actress was intimately — some say persistently — involved with the development of the picture, and retains an onscreen credit as its producer. But it’s plainly Robbie’s show all the way, and the actress is allowed by screenwriter Christina Hudson to develop her character and display some extra depth as Harley Quinn. With a movie of her own, the character is permitted to occasionally display hurt, loyalty, dreams, ambitions, and even demonstrate her singing and dancing chops in a stylized musical sequence built around the ode to greed, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”


Still, Robbie as Harley Quinn does play well with the other characters, and as directed by Cathy Yan, the film is a surprisingly entertaining introduction to the all-female Birds of Prey superhero team of crimefighters, inadvertently recruited by the hapless Harley throughout the picture’s narrative in her quest to recover the coveted Bertinelli diamond. And as a team effort, actress and producer Robbie shares ample screen time with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Rosie Perez as the newly-minted Birds of Prey, 13-year-old Ella Jay Basco as the young street criminal Cassandra Cain, and Ewan McGregor as an especially brutal and duplicitous crime lord with Joker-like qualities.


“Birds of Prey” is earning impressive reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 80% from Rotten Tomatoes and a weighted average of 60% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes reports that “with a fresh perspective, some new friends, and loads of fast-paced action, (the picture) captures the colorfully anarchic spirit of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn.” Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore assign an average grade of B-plus to the picture.


Despite glowing reviews, “Birds of Prey” is repeating the disappointing financial results of other DC Comics-based pictures. Originally projected to earn up to $55 million in ticket sales over its opening weekend, the picture earned only $33.2 million during the period, representing the lowest opening weekend for a DC title since 2010’s relatively obscure “Jonah Hex.” With $48 million in earnings in other territories contributing to total worldwide earnings of $81.2 million, the picture is expected to earn back its estimated production budget of $84.5 million, but places future “Birds of Prey” pictures in serious jeopardy.


Actor Jared Leto was rumored to reprise his “Suicide Squad” characterization as The Joker in “Birds of Prey,” but does not participate in the picture — the actor is said to be keenly disappointed by his exclusion from Todd Phillips’ acclaimed stand-alone “Joker” feature, particularly since its notable financial and critical success, which includes an Academy Award for actor Joaquin Phoenix in the Joker role (Phoenix is the second actor to have earned an Academy Award for the role, after the late Heath Ledger for 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” The Joker character does appear in “Birds of Prey” during the picture’s opening sequence ... courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures’ peerless animation department.


An early incarnation of “Birds of Prey” contained the character of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, and was to have been played by actress Kristen Stewart, but was excluded from the script during revisions. A sequel to 2016’s “Suicide Squad” is scheduled to be produced for release in August, 2021, with the departing Will Smith being replaced with a different character played by actor Idris Elba. The ending of “Birds of Prey” teases next year’s “The Batman,” Matt Reeves’ highly anticipated reboot of the series, with “Twilight” heartthrob Robert Pattinson inheriting the role of the Caped Crusader.


“Birds of Prey” is rated R for strong violence and language concerns throughout, and some drug and sexual content.

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