Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
Mind Over Mayhem
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a messy, anarchic, and uneven punk-y girl-power romp. Directed by Cathy Yan, in her first studio project, Birds of Prey is at its best when it’s letting Margot Robbie’s tattooed anti-heroine Harley Quinn (who made her first appearance in Batman: The Animated Series in 1992) do her thing, essentially being set loose like a rouge firecracker to wreak havoc in Gotham City. However, for a flick trying pretty darn hard to distance itself from Jared Leto’s Joker incarnation and the DCEU’s mangled Suicide Squad (2016), Birds of Prey winds up being fraught by most of the same problems.
Taking its cues from Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool films, BoP is told non-linearly through voice-over by our fourth wall breaking lead Harleen Quinzel, who recounts the tale of her emancipation and the women who inadvertently helped her along the way. The movie opens with a nifty animated sequence that re-caps her story so far (coz, God forbid anyone revisits Suicide Squad), reminding us that this crazed lunatic once had the smarts, earning a Ph.D. long before succumbing to Mr. J’s deranged charms. Altering the famous history that creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm carved out for the character in DC’s one-shot comic The Batman Adventures: Mad Love, Harley is dumped by Joker (who’s never seen here) after years of being stuck in an abusive relationship. Dressed like a demented cheerleader, she gets closure by driving an oil truck into the ACME Chemical refinery she and the Clown Prince of Crime first got together at, blowing it sky-high.
Left to fend for herself in the mean streets of Gotham, our perky protagonist gets herself a tiny new pad, cuts her cotton-candy-colored pigtails, joins a roller derby, and adopts a pet hyena, which she names Bruce ‘after that hunky Wayne guy.’ Although all she wants to do is eat the perfect egg sandwich, Quinn finds herself a target of many of the folks she’s pissed off in the past (everybody’s got a grievance with her), seeing as she’s no longer being protected by ‘Mistah J.’ Chief of these people are Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis aka Black Mask, a sadistic yet flamboyant crime lord/ nightclub owner with a penchant for carving people’s faces off, and his dangerous enforcer, the scared Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). Things, however, get complicated when Harley is caught by Roman and she promises the mascara-wearing baddie that she’ll help him retrieve a missing diamond in exchange for her life — a jewel that was previously owned by a wealthy crime family that was viciously gunned down in their home years ago. Problem is, the diamond was pickpocketed (and then swallowed) by a young street thief named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
In her search for the diamond (read filmic McGuffin), Harley crosses paths with sassy burlesque singer/ Roman’s driver Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a mysterious assassin known as The Crossbow Killer aka Helena Bertinelli / Huntress (a criminally underused Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and disgruntled cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who’s many triumphs have been stolen by her chauvinistic male co-workers. But with each of the women being added to Roman’s hit list, they must form an unlikely alliance and work together if they wish to stay alive.
Written by Christina Hodson — who did a great job on 2018’s Bumblebee — Birds of Prey feels very frantic and unfocused, the film changing tones as often as Quinn changes outfits — just like its reviled cousin Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey underwent massive reshoots last year (several scenes from its trailers are even missing), with John Wick’s Chad Stahelski being brought in to punch up the combat. Thankfully, most of the glitter-fused action shines, predominantly a ca-razy three-act police station raid (through the precinct, holding cells then the evidence room) where Quinn uses non-lethal bullets, baseball bats and bags of cocaine to fight her way through a packed cop shop. Another that’s been making the rounds online is a bit where Harley passes Black Canary a hair tie mid-battle, a relatable female moment we’ve never seen in a big-budget superhero flick before. And while a lot of creative licenses have been taken with Robbie’s character (she’s even a tad over-powered here), these bone-crushing brawls are indeed a high point. There’s some other good stuff too, but it literally comes and goes in a flash; for instance, that Marilyn Monroe inspired ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ dance sequence that features heavily in the trailers — why’s it so short? In addition, the film looks like a carnival of delights, with the vibrant cinematography by Matthew Libatique, Black Swan (2010), being colorfully hypnotic, while the costumes by Erin Benach, A Star Is Born (2018), are lively and fun.
Less successful, however, is the comedy, which comes off as forced, most of it falling flat. Furthermore, while it’s okay for the film to be overtly feminist, it’s pointless vilifying pretty much every man in the movie. Birds of Prey lacks a single positive depiction of a male. Sure, I get that this is supposed to be about kick-ass women and sisterhood, but does every guy have to be a woman-hating sleaze? There’s a problematic scene that takes place in Roman’s club (where he abuses a cackling female like a Hollywood predator) that’s extremely uncomfortable and has little point narratively, so why’s it in the film? As for that LGBTQ+ representation that was promised, well, bar the odd queer reference or two, it’s vague at best; Renee Montoya is supposed to be a lesbian, although we never see her interact romantically with her ex-girlfriend Ellen Yee (Ali Wong), Quinn’s bisexuality is barely hinted at, whilst Roman treats Zsasz more like an acolyte rather than a lover.
Anchoring the film with a smile plastered on her tattooed face, and a sugar rush of madcap energy is two-time Oscar nominee Margot Robbie, I, Tonya (2017). She’s batshit crazy, endearing, dynamic and whimsical. Robbie makes the unhinged Clown Queen her own. Whilst her version of Harley differs from that of the comics, Margot’s done a stellar job in crafting a new cinematic legacy for the character. Jurnee-Smollett-Bell, The Great Debaters (2007), does an okay job as Black Canary, despite being notably different from her comic book iteration. Though having limited screen time, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), is given the meatiest arc in the film as the crossbow-welding (no, it’s not a bow and arrow) Huntress. Her deadpan delivery and adorkableness are sure to evoke a few chuckles, and aside from Robbie, she’s the best of the cast.
The generally excellent Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge! (2001), chews the scenery as the devilishly boisterous Black Mask, yet curiously only dons the signature face piece once. Chris Messina, Argo (2012), totally sells the bromance between him and Roman as righthand goon Victor Zsasz, imbuing the character with menace and mystery. Faring rather badly, however, is Ella Jay Basco, Veep (2017), who’s borderline unlikable as Cassandra Cain. While she’s just a foster kid in the movie, comic fans would know that the character is the daughter of DC assassins David Cain and Lady Shiva, who eventually falls under the protection of Batman and becomes one of the post Barbara Gordon Batgirls. Although none of this pops up in BoP, I’m hoping the lifeless Jay Basco is re-cast if her storyline is followed through as she doesn’t leave much of an impression.
Despite the best efforts of its first-rate production and charismatic leading actress, Birds of Prey (and the Ridiculously Long Title) is a big step down for the DC brand. More recent DCEU movies have been killing it — think 2019’s Shazam! and Joker. Unfortunately, Harley’s first solo adventure breaks the studio’s current winning streak. With that said, though, I’m still rooting for Birds to succeed, even if only to see more of Margot’s eccentric Harley, and maybe even other Gotham City Sirens up on the big screen — Poison Ivy, please!
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie