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BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO

By KARL R. De MESA
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

There are a few moments of poetic musing in the frenetic mess and breakneck speed of the bombastically titled Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).

One of them comes early on, the morning after Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) goes on an epic binge and her craving for that perfect hangover egg sandwich takes a tragic turn when she’s chased down Gotham’s streets by the authorities with nary a bite yet of bacon, egg, or cheese.

I’m told every New Yorker will be able to relate to making a run for it while holding a precious sandwich in one hand and an aspirin blister pack in the other, but for a few genuine moments Quinn isn’t a spurned girlfriend or a tough as nails, insane character suffering from one of the most abusive co-dependent relationships in all of comic book nerdom—she’s just a woman who wants her shot of carbs for that splitting headache.

Sadly, that’s where her traditional pantomime comic performance ends. And sadly her moments of unaffected sober, poetic grace are limited to those absurd comedic moments, the in-joke of which is lost to the rest of the world who aren’t New Yorkers or psychotic ex-psychiatrists.

Because at its heart this really isn’t about how the Birds of Prey, the girl gang made up of DC comics anti-heroes Huntress, Cassandra Cain (future Batgirl), and Renee Montoya (future The Question), came together—because Quinn or the BoP never overlapped as a team—but rather a narrative feint. It’s a cover to illustrate how Quinn can play nice and bandy quip with other female characters while she goes through a breakup with her now ex-puddin’ the Joker. As a corollary, the consequences of said criminally insane uncoupling is how many people (and there are many, the film lists, which also require pop-up texts with witty copy for clarity) want to take revenge on Quinn now that she’s no longer warming the Clown Prince’s bed.

Harley Quinn doesn’t want to publicly update everyone on her new relationship status but then she still goes and blows up Ace Chemicals, the cathartic locale-a-tete of their romance where Joker bade her jump into the vat of chemicals to prove her love and leave her corduroy-skirt-wearing academic self and mind in smithereens.

So yeah, running a truck into the plant pretty much announces that break-up, despite her best efforts to keep it under the lid. Why? Because Quinn’s worst enemy is—gasp—herself. And because—gasp—she wants closure. And—news flash—she’s insane.

There’s plenty of over the top violence and mayhem to be had here as director Cathy Yan tried her best to make it seem like the stakes are high enough for the characters despite the lack of world-ending, garden variety comic book threats.

Chief among Quinn’s and the Birds of Prey’s grudge-bearers is Roman “Black Mask” Sionis (Ewan McGregor). To his credit, McGregor relishes the sleaze and misogyny of the cartoonishly vain and possessive crime lord who has an obsession for African masks and face-peeling—a torturous act mostly executed by his sadomasochistic knife-happy henchman Victor Zsasz, played to the best of his top shelf thespian ability by Chris Messina (Live By Night). Still, it’s hard to take Sionis’s second rate villainy seriously, as people make fun of him at every turn, and slight tittering in his club make him skittishly insecure that he’s being laughed at.

To their credit, the rest of the cast try hard to keep up with the gleeful glam of Quinn. Robbie knocks her character out of the park armed with a glitter cannon one moment (laying siege to a police precinct), then with a sledgehammer the next (in the final battle at an abandoned funhouse). Rosie Perez as GCPD detective Renee Montoya and Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain are given cardboard genre cutouts and are literally almost told to be trees (the running joke about Montoya is that she solves crime like an ‘80s cop, and the joke isn’t at all droll). Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Helena Bertinelli (aka Huntress) and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Dinah Laurel Lance (aka Black Canary) are the ones who get the bigger slice of back story to play with and, consequently, more share of the spotlight. Huntress would be a great spinoff from this catastrophe, by the way.

Still, they’re no match for the gun-chewing, egg sandwich-craving, legs-breaking, mayhem-loving, and hyena-caring (said pet is named Bruce, after you know who) villainess who just wants to find out who she is sans the Joker. It’s an act of self-interview that would be way better meditated on, I think, if all the other women had been taken out of the equation. But for all its exhortation on feminine emancipation and wanting to be taken seriously by standing on your own merits, it turns out Quinn still needs a little help from her girlfriends.

There’s no pumping the brakes here and Robbie is given all the Looney Tunes action set pieces she’s capable of handling. She even bounces back from damage that would fell a normal person like the Coyote would.

It really would be so much easier to appreciate the glitter and color of the riot girl chaos if the antics weren’t so totally patterned after the antics of Deadpool. And while she may try as hard as her Oscar-nominated pretty face as she can to out sass the Merc with a Mouth, Robbie cannot match the charisma of a Ryan Reynolds.

While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the “hey, let’s make it fun!” credo, the pervasive sense of missed opportunities here is glaring. The biggest one being to give commentary on how someone like Quinn, with her history of academic accomplishment who fell for the wrong guy, and then got out of her violently dysfunctional relationship, might also be a good chance to stand as a metaphor for similar examples of feminine liberation. You know, those other women who have gone through the same mental anguish, physical abuse, and crisis of identity and faith? But hey, at least it’s better than the awful Suicide Squad and you can still go home and forget you watched this pretty and pink-laden forgettable flick.

Harley may have been craving the perfect bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich to stave off her hangover, but there really is no replacing a full meal of narrative meaning for empty calories.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is rated R-16 and is now screening in Philippine cinemas.



Source: Manila Bulletin

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