The good-natured, yet hyper-violent Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is amusing enough to get by, a sort-of Deadpool-lite strung together with a wink, a pagan’s prayer and a lot of chicken wire, and absent the Ryan Reynolds picture’s impudent, gruesome, genuinely transgressive and hugely entertaining impulses. But BOP is a distinct upgrade over the Oscar-winning-epic-that-shall-not-be-named from whose befouled loins it sprang came (okay, okay, Suicide Squad, but you likely knew that already), and it allows Ewan McGregor, as the unctuous and evil villain Black Mask, the most fun he’s probably ever had on screen. Margot Robbie, of course, chews it up in grand style too as our bubblegum-snapping “heroine,” the admittedly insane but magnetically likable Harley Quinn, the Joker’s ex-girlfriend, whose mismatched wardrobe reflects the bells and whistles constantly jangling about inside her head but is also a continuing act of found fashion art, like what might happen if Jackson Pollock did a line for Hot Topic. Robbie has her share of kicks as well, of course, even if the movie isn’t sharp or funny enough to match her enthusiasm. There are also game turns from Rosie Perez as an ‘80s-cop-show-obsessed cop (an idea the movie does almost nothing with), Jurnee Smollett-Bell as a songstress/not-at-all-committed employee of the Mask’s whose glass-shattering voice might have Ella Fitzgerald protesting from the grave, Chris Messina as the Mask’s creepy, face-stealing henchman, and Ella Jay Basco as the pickpocketing kid around whom all this nonsense spins.
But the movie is near-stolen by Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress, a mysterious, revenge-inspired assassin with a pretty by-the-numbers back story who dishes out gory karma all while constantly correcting onlookers about her assumed moniker and choice of weaponry. The young actress absolutely sells her pseudo-hero’s poker-faced, confident purpose while at the same time undermining it with the humorous insecurity of a kid brought up in isolation on a steady diet of unslaked vengeance who just, in her own weird way, wants to reconnect with the concept of belonging to a sort of family. Winstead is deadpan hilarious here, and she and Robbie share the movie’s best sequence, a motorcycle-car chase that finally moves the picture’s roller derby sensibility from subtext to rip-roaring text, with Harley Quinn on skates behind Huntress’s cycle, whipping around, over and onto a fleeing car full of creeps. Birds of Prey is worth seeing for this sequence alone, but Robbie, McGregor, and especially Winstead make it worth the whole trip.
Which leads me to my nifty Mary Elizabeth Winstead story. When my eldest daughter was five, we saw the superhero comedy Sky High at a drive-in. We not only loved the movie, a sort-of wackier John Hughes-type coming-of-age picture done up at a high school for budding superheroes who don’t quite know what to do with how their bodies are changing, adapting to their nascent super-abilities, but we also loved Winstead in it—she plays the superhero high school’s most popular student, who has designs on the story’s protagonist and who goes from potential girlfriend to deadly foe, in a Disney way, of course. About a year after we saw the movie, and after we’d bought it and seen in a couple thousand more times on DVD, my daughters and wife and I were window shopping in Burbank and strolled into an Urban Outfitters where I almost immediately spotted the actress, who was standing and talking to a friend. (At almost six feet, she was very striking and kinda hard to miss.) So after a moment or two to screw up my courage, I walked over, introduced myself, explained that my six and four-year-old daughters were huge fans of her performance as the super-villainess Royal Pain, and asked if she’d mind if I brought them over to meet her. This was early enough in her career that Winstead may have been purely happy just to have been recognized, but she seemed delighted by the suggestion, and so I retrieved my kids and we stepped over to where she was.
The looks on their faces, especially my eldest’s, as they met their first, and maybe favorite at the time, movie star was, as they say, priceless. Winstead talked to them for a few minutes, was extremely charming, and also still enough of a kid herself at the time to be real with them in a way that she might not otherwise have been able to access, and I will always love her for that moment she gave my kids. So, when I sat next to my daughter last night as she crushed massively over Winstead on-screen as Huntress, it was a really neat and once-in-a-lifetime thing to be able to remember that moment and remind my kid about it afterward. She would have loved the movie anyway, but this terrific young actress sealed that response with a well-placed arrow right in my daughter’s heart.
Thanks, #MaryElizabethWinstead, wherever you are!