Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), 2020.
Directed by Cathy Yan.
Starring Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Matthew Willig, Steven Williams and Ali Wong.
After a heartbreaking, Gotham city-shaking split up with The Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) forges her own path of destruction that leads her towards a confrontation with the law, an evil crime lord (Ewan McGregor), and a brand new set of superheroes.
Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn came out swinging from the wreckage of Suicide Squad. Anarchic, wickedly amoral, and devilishly fun, it was an unhinged maelstrom of a big-top performance. However, as Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary puts it to Quinn in Cathy Yan’s Avarian Assemble – “you’re the asshole no one likes” – so the job of crafting an entire film around a character that’s constantly dialled up to eleven and somewhat hard to love, could prove to be a tricky gambit.
Such fears are quickly emancipated, because once you’ve waded through a prologue that’s an inventively stylish, but worryingly hyperactive kick in the face assault on the senses, Birds of Prey evolves into a kaleidoscopic fun-house of a film, with another turn from Margot Robbie that makes all of the glitter-bombs or paint explosions comparatively monochrome alongside the charisma she brings to the role of the titular troublemaker.
First off, the film looks stunning. Everything from the costumes (there are enough on display for everyone to attend Halloween dressed as Harley Quinn and still be unique), to the animated opening, and even a high-definition slow-motion shot of a toasted egg-sandwich, are wonderfully realised. It feels as though movie-magic has been sprinkled on the panels of a graphic novel and they’ve just come-to-life. Birds of Prey has its own singular viewfinder, full of garish colours and hilarious on-screen titles, which embellish, rather than act as substitute for the story.
It’s a tale that cleverly uses Harley Quinn voiceover as a plot device, reading from the Deadpool playbook with her asides and fourth-wall breaking cheekiness, which adds some depth to a character that could so easily have become a superficial kick-ass action figure. There’s more to Quinn than quips.
Much of this is down to Robbie, who bats away the leering lens of Suicide Squad to make Harley so much more than a t-shirt transfer. Her physical performance is astonishing: the confident stride as she exorcises the memory of Mr. J in the form of a huge title card explosion, or the broken marionette of the final reel. Combine this with as many one-liners as there are expletives (this is a hard-R), and you’ll be hard pressed to find a more committed turn this year. The Clown Prince Joker can step aside.
It’s not all about Harleen Frances Quinzel though, and diluting her madness with an impressive ensemble is one of the main reasons Birds of Prey soars. Rosie Perez is great as the police officer who solves cases, only for the men of the precinct to take the credit, and speaks as though she’s existing inside an 80s cop movie; Jurnee Smollett-Bell almost steals the show as the lounge-singer with an extra-special voice; while Mary Elizabeth Winstead arrives late and levels up on Ramona Flowers as the emotionally stunted ‘crossbow killer’.
However, it’s Ewan McGregor’s flamboyant bad-guy who challenges Robbie for MVP status. Psychotic enough to have someone’s face removed because of a “snot-bubble”, he’ll then be dropping a zinger a beat later. The failure to create a well-rounded villain has been a problem in even the best of the DC movies, yet Christina Hodson’s script has managed to make Roman Sionis as terrifying as he is hilarious, as well as being refreshingly progressive, up to a point.
Those seeking their action-fix are well catered for too. Cathy Yan creates a wonderful canvas upon which she spray paints this colourful line-up of characters, with John Wick’s Chad Stahelski on hand to help orchestrate the fight sequences. And boy does that combination pay-off: a mid-film moment involving Harley Quinn, her baseball bat, and any number of broken bones, all synchronised to Ram Jam’s ‘Black Betty’, is the kind of sequence that would make Keanu Reeves’ Baba Yaga wince.
Clearly it won’t be for everyone, the opening in particular feels like you’re been shouted at very loudly. But adjust to its tone, and Birds of Prey is a chaotic, colourful dose of shin-kicking, ball-breaking fun of the highest order.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter @mainstreammatt