Review – Who Needs a Joker? “Birds of Prey”

After doing Harley Quinn in 2016’s Suicide Squad and her voice-over work in video games, Margot Robbie is on a roll. She’s gonna reprise Harley again in the future with Gotham City Sirens, Suicide Squad 2, and more. Something tells me that she’s really enjoying playing this character!

Narrating this story and occasionally breaking the fourth wall, Harleen Quinzel (Robbie), better known to the criminal underworld as Joker’s gal, Harley Quinn, is in a pickle. After Joker broke her out of prison (remember the end of Suicide Squad?), she dumped her psychotic boyfriend, making her an instant target, as the Joker is no longer there to protect her. Uh-oh. Aside from all the bad guys after her, her worse enemy is her current employer, crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who goes by Black Mask when he gets REALLY angry.

As the story ping-pongs back ‘n’ forth with flashbacks, backstories, and such, we learn about three other women in Gotham City. Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who is getting pretty fed up with her bosses at work for not getting credit, Dinah Laurel Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a torch singer at Roman’s club who is pulled into a world of violence, and Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) aka The Huntress, a mini-crossbow killer out for revenge that keeps crossing paths with Harley and the others. They we have the lynch pin that ties then all together: teenager and pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who steals a super-valuable diamond from Roman’s chief assassin, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). Oooo! Big mistake!

Harley, running for her life, strikes a deal with Roman: find the kid & get the diamond back to him and she’ll get to live. But that’s not gonna be easy as Roman is hedging his bets and puts out a bounty out on the kid… y’know, just in case. As the bullets fly, Harley and the kid try to stay alive, culminating in a major showdown at the Joker’s old abandoned amusement park (an homage to Tim Burton’s Batman in the architecture) with all the girls (now forming the titular Birds of Prey) to stop Black Mask and his death squad. One thing is for certain, screenwriter Christina Hodson (Shut-In, Bumblebee) doesn’t mess around. She sticks with the comic book/TV Harley Quinn character and runs with it freely, even bringing in Harley’s signature circus mallet and at least one of her pet hyena’s.

Although the movie is titled Birds of Prey, they take a backseat to Harley (Robbie), who steals the movie with her incredible talent, showmanship, and performance that goes beyond that of her other two-dimensional actors around her. Hodson doesn’t quite flesh out the other ‘birds’ so much, being this is Harley’s story. But hey! That’s why we’re here, right?

Harley is bad-ass, funny, contemptuous, never plays fair, and Robbie kills in this role without breaking a sweat. Hodson’s writing is jumbled and cartoonish, like reading a graphic novel (or watching a Family Guy episode) with its many cut-ways and side stories, but that adds to the hi-caliber mischief on-screen. It never takes itself too seriously and that’s where this movie draws its laughs from.

Also, being this is 2020 and feminism is everywhere, all the women depicted are strong, supportive, and empowered, while every single male shown is either a villain or just plain awful. Every. Single. One. Sheesh! Hodson will also be writing the upcoming Flash and Batgirl movies as well.

On the directing side you have Cathy Yan making her U.S. directorial debut (she made one movie in China called Dead Pigs). I will say this, Yan has a wicked, playful, natural style and great hand for shooting action films. Similar to John Woo, Robert Rodriguez, and James Cameron, she packs a wallop with impressive camerawork, using plenty of slo-mo in her fight scenes which, by the way, are awesome! She also knows where to put the camera for her fight scenes for maximum coverage with very little edits.

Sugar & Spice (2001)

A little ditty ’bout Jack & Diane/two American kids growing up in the Heartland“. In a movie that somehow wanted to be Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Bring It On, and Reservoir Dogs all rolled into one, it sadly fell short on all counts. And it was actually based on true events that happened in 1999 in Houston, Texas!

A mini-bank inside a supermarket has just been robbed, and the one credible witness is telling detectives her story: she’s the insufferably nasty Lisa Janusch (Marla Sokoloff), a B-squad cheerleader at Lincoln High School who oozes contempt and envy for the A-squad of perfect cheerleaders. These classy girls are: quick-tempered Kansas Hill (Mena Suvari), Conan O’Brien obsessed Cleo Miller (Melissa George), OCD Lucy Whitmore (Sara Marsh), religious virgin Hannah Wald (Rachel Blanchard), and their team leader, Diane Weston (Marley Shelton).

Y’see, Diane has fallen in love with a fellow student, dim-witted jock boyfriend named Jack (James Marsden), and gotten pregnant. While they wait to get married (and graduate high school), they rent an apartment, but Diane discovers that even though they both have menial jobs after school, rent & expensive are killing them. Ha! Welcome to the real world, kiddo! Anyway, after watching Point Break on TV one night with her squad, she gets a crazy idea: they’ll rob the mini-bank she works at using disguises like in the movie!

The girls are all on-board (more or less), and get criminal advice from watching movies and talking to inmates at a local penitentiary, which is fortunate since Kansas’ mother is convicted felon there! They also need guns, and they get those from a shady bug exterminator (W. Earl Brown), BUT only if his shy teen daughter, Fern (Alexandra Holden) can join their cheerleader gang. Agreed. The day of the heist happens and the girls, all posing pregnant and wearing identical “Betty Doll” masks, rob the bank successfully. Well, almost, as their worst enemy – B-squad antagonist Jane – watched them and figured out who they were. However, in a stunning and quick ending to this very short 73 minute movie, a deal is cut between Diane and Jane, and everyone goes home happy! Boom. Just like that. The end!

This movie was a victim of many circumstances: first, really, really bad timing. It was released right after 9/11 AND the Columbine shootings (Yikes!!), so the title had to to be changed (it was originally called Sugar & Spice & Semi-automatics). Second, screenwriter, “Mandy Nelson”, is fake. The real writer was Lona Williams (The old Drew Carey Show TV series), and her name was removed from this film by the producers! Third, this was director Francine McDougall’s first (and last) theatrical effort. In a sense, this movie never stood a chance. Of course, the fact that it was barely amusing and had NO focal point or reason didn’t help either.

The cast makes a go of it; Marsden has a lock on being charmingly stupid, and Marley Shelton (who looks as if Christina Ricci & Amanda Seyfried had a love child) is deceptively naive and smart at the same time. The other girls are more caricatures than characters, with the exception of Alexandra Holden. For the little amount of time she’s on camera, she shines by being the only one NOT acting. As far as that script is concerned, there was great potential, inasmuch as it could have been a delicious and hilarious send-up of cheerleaders pulling a Day Day Afternoon type bank robbery, but they blew the chance. Pity.

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