Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. 2020
Directed by Cathy Yan
Starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Chris Messina, Ali Wong, Matthew Willig, and Dana Lee
After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord.
The premise of Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t as simple to pull off as it seems. From a straight-up narrative standpoint, the idea of a supervillain/antihero break-up story is unheard of for the genre but ripe with material to play off of and spread a worthwhile message to society regarding toxic relationships. However, director Cathy Yan (her sophomore feature following the Sundance hit Dead Pigs) and screenwriter Christina Hodson (most known for her excellent work on Bumblebee, once again proving she has what it takes to take these male-dominated franchises and reinvent them in ways that better understand female characters while appealing to new and old demographics) both are forced by extensive universe design and the fact that Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie continues to own the role and make her interpretation of the character one of the most iconic in all of comic book adaptations) is not a good person, to not get too close to full-blown redemption, salvation, and what have you.
It’s not even 20 minutes into Birds of Prey (I am not typing that full title out every single time) when innocent civilians are getting hurt (and in the case of one presumably innocent bystander, murdered) caught in the chaos of a police chase after Harley. Making good use of Joan Jett & The Blackhearts’ ‘classic tune I Hate Myself for Loving You (the entire soundtrack to this movie is banging with contemporary hits and effectively brooding covers of memorable songs), Birds of Prey does successfully elicit some sympathy for the titular One Harley Quinn. Her life has been a shitshow since birth (an amusing and well done animated opening prologue fills us in on some childhood trauma), and her well-intentioned efforts to practice psychological therapy backfired on her paving the way for a mentally and physically abusive relationship with Joker (the Jared Leto abomination, just for clarity’s sake).
Yes, she is a product of abuse but no saint herself, and this filmmaking duo is aware of that. Cathy and Christina walk the tight rope between female empowerment and mischievous mayhem in ways that demand viewers to accept Harley as is, flaws and all. The script wisely knows that emancipation from Joker is not enough to liberate her from all of her wrongdoings, slowly playing with her moral compass over time and evolving her into a less terrible person (as Harley herself puts it). It uses everything from irreverent humor (Harley buys a hyena companion and obsesses over breakfast sandwiches) to intentionally wacky jumping between a week ago and present-day (sometimes the chronology is played around with so much that it does become disorienting in a detracting manner) to eccentric narration that smartly flows within actions and dialogue on screen.
By now, it should be obvious that whenever Harley is either in the frame or voicing exposition, Birds of Prey soars with electricity. Meanwhile, when the movie is introducing some of its other antiheroes or spinning the gears of its overly complicated plot, the proceedings occasionally screech to a halt. It’s a 109-minute movie that only feels its length because of a few specific scenes, and they usually have something to do with a diamond worth half $1 million or Harley once again reiterating to someone that she is done with the Joker for good. The latter is especially frustrating considering the entire opening sequence exists to give her the space to perform an extreme stunt that sends a message regarding where the couple stands.
There’s a point where Harley walks into a police station, gets on with a stunning fight sequence (the choreography is off the chain here) that’s somehow not even the best one in the movie (I have endless questions about the set design for the battle arena during the grand finale), only to double back with flashbacks catching audiences up to speed with why she is there in the first place, except it goes on for so long that one can’t help but declare some of it an editing nightmare rather than quirky storytelling.
The positive here is that the supporting cast inevitably does win us over, whether it’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s hot-tempered crossbow-wielding Huntress (to quote one of her best lines quipped in a fit of rage, “it’s not a bow-and-arrow, I’m not a 12-year-old), Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary (she’s got combat moves as impressive as her killer vocals), and Rosie Perez’s self-aware 80s detective movie excuse for an investigator Renee Montoya (if there’s any character that could have been easily cut it’s her, but she is the butt of some funny jokes that demonstrate the movie knows how ridiculous it is).
Easily the most intriguing sidekick character, though, is Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain, a kleptomaniac pickpocketer that unknowingly gets wrapped up in the middle of a crime organization wanting both Harley dead and the aforementioned expensive diamond that contains another lucrative opportunity. She’s also burdened with a dysfunctional family that is never seen but assuredly heard having a hard-R domestic argument, intriguingly placed into the position of potentially looking up to these traumatized ladies for direction in life and independent power. Of course, we all want Harley to come down off of her toxic relationship and transition into a better person, but that’s simply because we all like characters that we can cheer on. The addition of Cassondra allows extra purpose for the audience to desire to see Harley soften up, but not entirely.
And then there’s Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask, a flamboyant sadist who seemingly gets off on torturing women whenever one of his criminal plans goes sideways. Ewan is absolutely having a blast, but it is a demanding performance that, in the same scene, can ask him to elicit laughter from his various pronunciations of the F-word and acting like a manchild, to induce recoiling as he terrorizes a nightclub dancer into stripping for no other reason than he is having a bad day. It’s gonzo work with a spectacular climax; a final confrontation that is enough to sell the film alone.
By the end of Birds of Prey, I was wishing that DC had actually come up with this idea years ago and properly introduced all of these characters with their own solo movies. At the very least, it will be a crime if no Huntress movie comes as a result of this. Cathy Yan had a difficult task squeezing all of these characters into a tight and compact zany relationship breakup crime vehicle, but her direction is able to overcome iffy storytelling and one or two contrivances, highlighting style, visceral brutality (the sound design for Harley’s signature baseball and mallet attacks are a thing of bone-crunching beauty), and a plethora of badass women defiant and eager to step out from the shadows of the men controlling them. Throw in the zippy humor from Christina Hodson, clear action photography from Matthew Libatique, a hyperactive score from Daniel Pemberton that matches the energy of the licensed music, and Margot Robbie’s endearingly crazy embodiment of Harley Quinn, and this is one emancipation with nothing but good things on the horizon.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com