‘Birds of Prey’ is a Cinematic Glitter Bomb of Profane, Violent Fun
After the dredge that was ‘Suicide Squad,’ Harley Quinn is back in a film that actually does her justice — and then some.
The first great film of 2020 has exploded onto screen in a colorful, anarchic package that makes comic book movies feel fresh again. Four years after Suicide Squad made Harley Quinn a sexual object for psychopaths in a stomach turning portrayal, Margot Robbie has taken back the character entirely. Directed by Cathy Yan, the ridiculously titled Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) explosively severs all ties with Quinn’s sadistic ex, The Joker and sends her off on a solo-ish adventure with the titular team.
The title would be more accurate if it read “The Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn (oh, and the Birds of Prey)”, because there is no denying that this is Harley’s film. The Birds each get their own stories within the film and respective moments to shine, but Quinn is undeniably the main character. If that reads as a complaint, it’s not. Robbie is electric as the eccentric and morally ambiguous Quinn; she’s far more unpredictable than the two previous big screen iterations of the Joker, and a lot more fun to watch.
From the animated opening that sets the stage to the bombastic fun house third act, Robbie shines as the recently single Harley Quinn. Fresh off her breakup, Quinn pretends like the breakup never happened, continuing to take advantage of the protection being the Joker’s girlfriend offered her. But her drunken and literally explosive announcement of their breakup paints a target on her back, forcing Harley to retrieve a MacGuffin for a vicious crime lord to save her own skin.
In the wings, the Birds of Prey also get their own stories. Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) is a young pickpocket who winds up stealing from the wrong person. Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell) is a nightclub singer with a killer voice and the unexplained ability to kick some ass. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is a tough-talking cop who’s male colleagues take credit for her hard work. And then there’s Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a crossbow wielding vigilante with cringe-inducing social skills. It takes some time for them to all come together; for most of the film they simply cross paths here and there.
The person that brings the Birds of Prey together is none other than Roman “Black Mask” Sionis (Ewan McGregor), one of the most entertaining villains to come from a comic book film. McGregor cranks up the camp dial in his portrayal of the narcissistic Sionis, crafting an unforgettable performance as flamboyant as the film itself. Sionis has a pension for peeling his victim’s faces off, but constantly wears gloves and is grossed out by the sight of a snot bubble. It’s easy to see McGregor is having a blast bringing the petulant criminal to life, just as it’s a blast to watch him do it.
Birds of Prey will undoubtedly be compared to Deadpool, due to the film’s R-rating and fourth-wall-breaking protagonist, but Birds is its own beast entirely. Gone is the male gaze from Suicide Squad, in which David Ayer’s camera leered at Robbie’s body. Director Cathy Yan replaces it with a healthy dose of female empowerment, in which the female characters are allowed to be actual characters, not sex symbols. Yan also made the excellent choice of bringing in Chad Stahelski (the John Wick franchise) to help out with the action and stunts. There are a lot of long takes to showcase the excellent fight choreography, in which baseball bats, carnival mallets, and bricks of cocaine are used to take down the patriar — I mean, bad guys.
The action is great, but Yan doesn’t stop there. She’s made a film that is genuinely funny, a laugh riot through and through. The humor is organic and genuinely funny, whether it be Harley overreacting to the loss of a breakfast sandwich or Huntress having no idea how to behave socially after a lifetime of training with assassins. Forget Christian Bale’s “grounded” Batman — this is what a vigilante would behave like in reality, and it makes for some of the funniest scenes in the whole thing.
In fact, the performances, comedic or otherwise, that Yan mines from her cast is unrivaled. Every one of the Birds are given the best big screen treatment possible. There’s no clear standout in this cast, as everyone has moments to shine bright. There is the best ensemble in a superhero film since Guardians of the Galaxy, and Yan takes full advantage of that, balancing their screen time perfectly — even if this is mostly Margot Robbie’s film.
The entire affair is told through the eyes of Harley, bringing into question how much of it happened exactly as it’s seen. In her mind, the candy colored world filled with stylized violence and delicious breakfast sandwiches makes sense, even if she can’t seem to remember what order these events happen in. The skewed timeline only adds to the zany tone, encapsulating Harley Quinn’s essence in cinematic form. Sure, the plot is as standard as they come, but the zippy, swing for the fences attitude of the film keeps it from feeling stale.
After the emotional weight of Avengers: Endgame and the nihilism of Joker, Birds of Prey feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s an unassuming blast of a film that delivers on the action, comedy, and character fronts. What it lacks in substance, it makes up for in pure, unfiltered fun. At the very least, it’s a strong argument for diversity both in front of and behind the camera. There’s no logical rebuttal when the results are this damn good.