Review – Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)
Director: Cathy Yan
Starring: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina, Ali Wong
Despite being almost universally panned, the one element of 2016’s Suicide Squad which was consistently singled out for praise was Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn and it didn’t take long before plans for a spinoff for her character began. That film has arrived in the form of Cathy Yan’s Birds of Pray: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Riding the first wave of female-led superhero blockbusters, this surprisingly violent and profanity-laden film offers a counter to the high ideals of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, instead peddling empowerment through fun and irresponsibility.
Having recently broken up with the Joker, whose presence had made her untouchable in Gotham, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) now finds herself surrounded by unpleasant individuals with scores to settle. Chief among them is gang boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). In exchange for her life, Harley agrees to help Sionis recover the highly valuable Bertinelli diamond which, while on its way into his possession, was unknowingly pick-pocketed by 13-year-old Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). An impressive rock in and of itself, the diamond is made even more valuable by the belief that embedded in it are the account numbers for the fortune of the Bertinelli crime family, massacred years earlier in a gangland war. Harley quickly discovers that she is not the only one on Cassandra’s tail. Veteran detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and Dina Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a lounge singer at Sionis’s bar, are also trying to get there first. All while a mysterious figure who everyone is calling the Crossbow Killer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has been going around dispatching underworld figures.
As is suggested by its somewhat cumbersome full title, Birds of Prey is trying to be two things simultaneously. Firstly, it is an origin story for the all-female crime fighting team the Birds of Prey. Secondly, it is a star vehicle for Margot Robbie as Harely. It doesn’t take long to realise that it is more interested in the latter than the former. Harley is our lead, she gets the lions share of the screen time and the story is told from her perspective. Birds of Prey explodes out of the gates with manic energy as Harley narrates an animated flashback of her origin story and recent breakup with the Joker. From there the narrative jumps all over the place in an anarchic fashion, with extended flashbacks within extended flashbacks, reflecting the fractured mental state of our narrator. Yan struggles to convert this initial frenetic energy into storytelling. As Harley stops, goes back, fills in backstory, and picks up somewhere else, it is quite challenging to get a grasp of the central story. In fact, the Bertinelli diamond, the MacGuffin that motivates all of the characters’ actions, is not mentioned until at least half an hour into the film. For that first act, Birds of Prey is entirely reliant on the charisma of Robbie’s Harley to keep you engaged, and as the wait for the narrative to kick in stretches on you do start to wonder whether they will be able to successfully transition this brilliant supporting character into an effective lead.
The remaining members of the titular team are more thinly drawn, with varying degrees of character development. Smollett-Bell’s Dina Lance is probably the second most three-dimensional character, reluctantly trapped in the service of Sionis, while Winstead’s Huntress, though visually striking, isn’t given much to work with. Despite this, when they do come together, the film really comes alive. It is just a shame that it doesn’t happen until the third act. Unlike previous superhero team-ups we have seen, this is not a group that is brought together so much as one that just finds themselves united by circumstance. With each having their own agenda and their own history with the Roman Sionis there is a potentially interesting group dynamic which could have been explored had we seen more of them together.
With a female director (Yan), female writer (Christina Hodson), and predominantly female ensemble, Birds of Prey doesn’t shy away from its #metoo context, actively telling a story of female empowerment. While the emancipation of the title is Harley’s, all of our central female characters go about freeing themselves from some form of masculine oppression, with every male character in the film presented as antagonistic. The characterisation of Roman Sionis, in particular, as a rather petulant, insecure man who performs sadistic acts of violence seemingly in response to his feeling disrespected is fitting in this #metoo context. But while Sionis fits the bill thematically, narratively he doesn’t quite hit the mark. When you have a protagonist as unrestrained and brazen as Harley Quinn, you require a genuinely menacing villain to seem capable of truly intimidating her. McGregor’s performance is big and scenery chewing, but for all his snarling sadism you don’t understand why she is any less inclined to cross him than every other goon she comes across.
What Birds of Prey does have in abundance is style. Given the keys to a studios blockbuster for the first time, director Yan has created a vibrant, colourful piece with well choreographed action set pieces and an aesthetic that is unashamedly comic booky. Birds of Prey is simultaneously cartoonish and more violent (lots of broken bones) and sweary (F-bombs all round) than anything we’ve seen in the DCEU before, which does take you by surprise when the visual style initially suggests a younger target audience.
Birds of Prey swings hard, unafraid to be its own thing, and clearly confident enough in its product that it hasn’t tried to squeeze in a cameo from the more proven box-office commodities that exist within its narrative universe like Batman or the Joker. It’s best bits are really good, but it ultimately relies too heavily on its trump card to the detriment of both its other characters and its narrative momentum.
Review by Duncan McLean
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