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Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Year: 2020
Production Co: Club house pictures
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Cathy Yan
Writer: Christina Hodson
Cast: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, June Smollet-Bell, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina

Well, this is gender equality in Hollywood. It's not equal pay, acknowledgement of all the unpaid labour that inherently comes with motherhood and family or freedom from the constant threat of sexual harassment or assault. It's the ability to commit bone shattering violence just as readily and skilfully as men do.

I shouldn't pick on Harley and the gang – I'll bet creative shepherd Margot Robbie, director Cathy Yan or the studio never meant for it to be an intelligent, measured feminist manifesto for the real world but a multiplex thrill ride.

But every movie with female protagonists nowadays attracts a sheen of riot grrl power simply because of the era we live in, and it's a mantle the filmmakers and stars concerned are only too happy to claim as their own. But you just can't have it both ways. You're either saying something genuine about female empowerment and equality or you're just wrangling the same tired comic book movie action tropes we've been seeing for several decades now, you're just swapping the penises for vaginas.

So no, I shouldn't pick on it, but the problem here is that it's such low hanging fruit because there's little else to it apart from the flashing colours and bone shattering violence. In fact there are so many fights, many of which go on for so long, it actually gets boring.

If there's one high point, it's the way the movie leans in to the attendant moods a violent comic book movie should have with swearing and blood that's definitely earned the American R rating.

After the events of Suicide Squad, Harley (Robbie) has split from The Joker, and in a fit of drunken inspiration she sends a gasoline tanker careening into the Ace Chemical plant, destroying the facility in a fireball that lights up the city as a way of publicly announcing that she's over Mr J. What she didn't count on was that being his girl afforded her a level of protection among Gotham City's low lives she won't survive without for long.

At the same time, a GCPD detective, Renee (Rosie Perez) is investigating a series of murders apparently committed by crossbow, and local crime lord Roman (Ewan McGregor) is so impressed with the fighting skills of the lounge singer Dinah (Jurnee Smollett- Bell) at his club he appoints her as his driver, working alongside his fearsome right hand man.

It's all a fairly complicated way of ultimately bringing them together (along with a young Asian runaway) for the climax, the MacGuffin being a diamond that has the access to a crime family fortune etched onto it and which sends all Gotham into a frenzied chase with everyone using its existence as leverage or payment for various rights and wrongs.

It sounds like a rich plot, but the extent to which it's only scaffolding to propel you to the next pyrotechnic or balletic action set piece is obvious, the girls mercilessly bashing or murdering various bad guys and goons, blowing things up or driving maniacally, all while profanely cracking wise.

If you want to be really nitpicky you can point to the problem that plagues a lot of these comic book universe spinoffs. Just like the Avengers all showed up to defend a township in Eastern Europe but were nowhere to be seen when it turned out Hydra had infiltrated SHIELD at the highest level (because the film in which it happened wasn't their movie), you can't help but wonder – with all this lawless mayhem – where Batman or even The Joker himself are?

It makes sense for the movie; it's the story of Harley and her new friends and doesn't concern other characters. But when a writer cherry picks elements from a mythology and ignores others it only serves to reveal the joins even more. Despite Todd Phillips not wanting Joker to be connected aesthetically or tonally to any other movie based on Batman's mythology, his script still managed to acknowledge how other characters from it existed.

And you can be really nitpicky about the title. Even I could have told them six months ago that Robbie and her character were the selling points, and that a title like 'Harley Quinn' would have been far more suited than the ridiculous mouthful they used to try and be ironic. I don't know if I agree that it underperformed as much because of the awful title like some critics have said, but punters decide to see movies based on far less.

The title actually seems to be priming you for a story about a group of superheroes, not just one. The problem is that it takes so long getting there and so casually rends the newfound gang asunder you never really believe in them as a group of underground vigilantes with their own specific looks, skillsets etc. The movie goes to no lengths to convince you you're watching the birth of a cool, female bad guy Justice League or Avengers.

But the real problem is the largely empty shell of the narrative framework. The characters might be better served than I remember, and the story might make plenty of sense (the shifting chronology in the first act set-up certainly doesn't help), it's just that all that stuff passed me by because I couldn't hear myself think over the sound of breaking bones and explosions.

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