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, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina.
Harley Quinn joins forces with a group of other women, both heroic and villainous, to save a young girl from a crime lord on the hunt for a diamond.
Nobody liked Suicide Squad. It’s not that David Ayer’s film was entirely without merit, but in fact it’s precisely because it had so much potential to be more than just another superhero team-up. With a killer cast led by Will Smith and Margot Robbie – Joel Kinnaman was technically the leader of the pack, but I couldn’t remember his character’s name without Googling, which says a lot – and the possibility to provide something more violent and edgy than Marvel, it had its chances. The resulting movie, though, was a mess of ideas and half-baked concepts stitched together into a Frankenstein-esque hodgepodge that culminated in Cara Delevingne gyrating beneath a big space spotlight for what felt like days. What I’m saying is, it wasn’t much good.
Most people did, however, agree that Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn – the Joker’s on-off girlfriend – was the highlight of the whole sorry fiasco. The greenlit was quickly given to a movie with Quinn at the centre which, after numerous false starts, became Birds of Prey. And suddenly, it’s all worth it. Every false start. Every failed attempt to give the project the kiss of life. Every promise that it would happen eventually. Every minute of Cara Delevingne gyrating. All of it. Because Birds of Prey is an acidic, technicolour demolition derby that shows what we can all achieve when we acknowledge that Gotham exists in more colours than simply black – and sometimes very, very dark grey.
Quinn starts the movie in the wake of a messy break-up from Mr J. She’s chopping off her hair at random, scoffing cereal like there’s no tomorrow and whiling away the hours watching Looney Tunes with her pet hyena. Once the news of her split from the Clown Prince of Crime becomes common knowledge, Quinn’s past catches up with her as just about every member of the Gotham underworld begins to seek vengeance. Chief among the aggressors is crime boss Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), who promises to spare Quinn if she reclaims a diamond for him, which is currently held by teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
As with just about any team-up movie, there’s an entire Swedish corporation’s worth of narrative furniture to move around in Birds of Prey. The majority of the characters are new to audiences, from Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s taciturn, ruthless assassin Huntress to Jurnee Smollett-Bell as singer-turned-chauffeur-turned-hero Black Canary, and so the script by Bumblebee scribe Christina Hodson has an awful lot to do. Fortunately, Robbie’s Quinn is a sardonic, charismatic and arresting narrator, through whose eyes the world pops with colour, anarchy and joyous unpredictability.
Despite her run of more traditional movie star projects, and her admirable work as a prestige lead, Harley Quinn seems to be the role Robbie was born to play. From the over-cranked New Jersey accent to her twee affection for everything from predatory mammals to offensive weapons – no one should be that excited by a baseball bat – Robbie is a riot to the extent that it would have been easy for the other characters to be squeezed out. It’s certainly Harley who’s the main attraction, but Hodson’s script nimbly provides much of the ensemble with plenty of time to shine. Ewan McGregor, particularly, is obviously having the most fun in the world as the cocksure, campy villain – although the queer-coding does feel a little like the intrusion of an old trope into an otherwise very fresh movie.
The film is consistently witty and barbed, tossing in references to comic book iconography and characters while also reflecting an aesthetic that feels ripped from the pulpy pages of the best superhero literature. It’s a cliché to call DC movies dark and gloomy, but the rainbow-hued world of Birds of Prey throws the sombre oeuvre of Zack Snyder into stark perspective. This is a Gotham of seedy, neon nightclubs and abandoned fairgrounds that thrum with life, colour and an energy that even the best of DC – stand up Wonder Woman and Shazam – has thus far failed to capture. When Quinn shoots up a police station with coloured smoke bombs and glitter, it’s a set piece that would probably give the uber-gritty Todd Phillips an aneurysm.
And Birds of Prey certainly thrives when it’s time for action. Director Cathy Yan, who previously only had the little-seen Dead Pigs under her belt, has a real flair for fights. A joyous skirmish in a sprinkler-soaked jail is 50% John Wick and 50% Singin’ in the Rain, while an eye-catching, euphoric third act sequence sees the Birds unite atop a rotating fairground platform. It’s a sequence which reminded me of the throne room duel from Star Wars: The Last Jedi – one of the most memorable and exciting action scenes in recent years.
There’s a propulsive energy and silliness to every blow and gunshot throughout Birds of Prey, helped by a jukebox soundtrack to rival any modern actioner, albeit one that leaves Daniel Pemberton’s score largely in the dark for much of the running time. Every member of the team gets to showcase her unique set of skills in amidst the action and so there’s plenty of material to explore these women further if this becomes a franchise – as it should be. There’s no reason why a movie as silly, sweary and swaggering as this shouldn’t rake in a mammoth box office haul.
Inventive and fresh at every turn, Birds of Prey embraces the chaos of Gotham to conjure something entirely different to any previous big screen vision of Batman’s home. The dream team of Yan, Hodson and Robbie has produced something very special indeed. If nothing else, this is a film that manages to make a disgusting-looking egg sandwich a major emotional plot point. That’s the level of genius we’re dealing with here. Roll on the inevitable sequel.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.