Published on February 25th, 2020 | by Damien Straker
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn – Film Review
Reviewed by Damien Straker on the 25th of February 2020
Roadshow presents a film by Cathy Yan
Produced by Margot Robbie, Bryan Unkeless, and Sue Kroll
Written by Christina Hodson Based on ‘Birds of Prey’ by Jordan B. Gorfinkel
Starring Margot Robbie, Ella Jay Basco, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina, and Ali Wong
Music by Daniel Pemberton
Cinematography Matthew Libatique
Edited by Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff
Release Date: the 6th of February 2020
Birds of Prey is a sizable improvement over Suicide Squad (2016) but lacks a foolproof plan. It is another chapter in the maligned but steadily growing DC Extended Universe and a spin-off movie. Jared Leto’s Joker is thankfully absent, allowing Margot Robbie to play Harley Quinn again on her own terms.
An animated sequence opens the film where Harley narrates her personal history of growing up to become a psychologist and meeting Joker. She and Joker have separated, and she assures people it’s definite this time. However, she grows depressed after hearing friends say she will return to him.
Wallowing at home with her pet hyena, Bruce, and spraying cheese in her mouth is her first response. A chance to prove her independence stems from a bizarre diamond chase. The heist emerges after Harley is captured by a dangerous nightclub owner, Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
He and his bodyguard, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), order Harley to retrieve the stone or she will die. If Roman doesn’t sound particularly dangerous, he also likes to slice off people’s faces. The stone has been swallowed by a pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who is detained by the police.
Lone cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) oversees the case but is ignored by her male colleagues. Two other women are involved: Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who sings at Roman’s nightclub, and Huntress (Elizabeth Mary Winstead), who puts a crossbow to use after witnessing her family’s murder.
For too long comic book films have diligently followed a rhythm where set pieces substitute plot and then climax with predictable boss fights. This composition has sometimes proven cinematic and unforgettable, such as in The Dark Knight (2008). However, director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs, 2018) and screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee, 2018) not only fail to subvert the formula but overcook it.
Cathy Yan is a Chinese filmmaker who has also worked internationally as a journalist with the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. She has a BA from Princeton University, an MBA from New York University, and an MFA from New York University Tisch School of the Arts. While this is only her second directorial feature, she will certainly make more consistent films in the future.
The first half of Birds is badly edited. Key moments, such as Harley cornered in an alley, are interrupted by long jumps forward and backwards in time. The structural gimmick jumbles the characters and viewpoints. It makes the story needlessly convoluted when the dispensable plot merely hosts fight scenes. Is it that hard for professional screenwriters to now write a decent, semi-coherent crime story?
Introducing four major heroines, a villain, and various side characters, is a huge task when the film is under two hours. It also makes the silly plot impenetrable. Harley’s voice over fills in the gaps but commenting on scenes where she is absent makes the technique lazy and nonsensical. There are quips acknowledging clichés, such as Renee being dismissed, as if this suddenly justifies them.
Some of Yan’s visual flourishes prove sharper than the bloated narrative. The architecture of Gotham City isn’t given much attention, but it is pleasing that the fight scenes are legible and smoothly cut. Every kick, jump, and blow is visible on screen. There are various set pieces where Harley somersaults, bats, and blasts her way through waves of cops and criminals.
The combat is well choreographed to underline her athleticism and independence. There are other pleasing visual touches, notably the insanely flamboyant costumes by Erin Benach. The detail on the characters is undeniably intricate, such as the number of studs across Harley’s eyebrow. Meanwhile, freeze-frame shots outline the grievances of vengeful thugs. It is a visual gimmick we’ve seen before.
While well-choreographed, the fight scenes rarely send your blood pumping. The emphasis on style drains them of tension. A lot has been said about the film’s R rating in the US. Apart from a face slicing scene that is off-camera and Harley snorting coke, the R rating does not feel necessary.
In one scene, Harley waltzes through a police station firing coloured bean bag rounds at the cops. Every shot substitutes blood for colour. It is the same as the fireworks from Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). These touches are befitting of the source material but deprive Birds of being visceral.
Sometimes the tone swings too far away from its bubble-gum style. For example, there’s an unpleasant scene where Roman rips a woman’s dress down in a nightclub. It is another reminder of how often modern Hollywood struggles to successfully meld the moods of tough action and comedy.
The film’s inconsistencies are attributable to the loose world building and flimsy internal logic. One decent idea is that Harley finds herself vulnerable to random Gotham thugs because she no longer has Joker’s protection. Yet there are scenes where this idea is completely discarded.
She is a notorious criminal but freely partakes in roller derbies and casually dines out with friends. The threat of the police and other criminals falls astray. Similarly, Batman is absent without explanation. He could have shaken up the film’s dynamics and added a greater sense of peril.
Logic and reasoning are sometimes an afterthought in Birds, and it is not always detrimental. A bizarre sequence sees Harley dazed and mimicking Marilyn Monroe by singing ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’. It is a pointless interlude but unexpected. A humorous gag is Harley’s love for an egg and bacon roll. As it falls in slow motion, her voice over quips, ‘then tragedy struck’, which is damn funny.
Working as a producer, Margot Robbie’s performance is far more enjoyable than it was in Suicide Squad. Her interpretation of Harley is more energetic, child-like, giddy, and less hypersexualised than before. She willingly throws herself into the action sequences and proves she possesses deft comic timing. It’s a rigorously cartoon performance that forgoes the embarrassment of Suicide Squad.
However, the screen time of the other females is imbalanced. Their roles are merely serviceable and comparable to action figurines bar Winstead as Huntress. There’s a fun running gag where she rehearses action lines in the mirror and much to her ire people misidentify her name and signature weapon. Otherwise, this resembles an early 2000s film celebrating ‘girl power’ with fist fights.
Normally reliable, Ewan McGregor is miscast as Roman. He is unsure of how to play this generic and forgettable villain. The character, whose lair is filled with relics, is more ham fisted than terrifying. Side characters fall by the wayside, including comedian Ali Wong. She is a welcome addition but wasted. Likewise, Chris Messina fails to distinguish Zsasz with any memorable traits.
There are pleasures in Birds of Prey, such as how the fight scenes have been photographed and Robbie’s likeable performance. Her commitment as both a comedic and physical actress is unwavering. However, the fundamentals around her are weak. Comic book films are so entrenched in video game imagery that they continually resist telling different types of stories.
Even as an excuse for set pieces, Bird’s narrative is confusing, bloated, and forgettable. It is overstuffed with time shifts, too many characters, and a generic climax. I’m still looking forward to seeing Robbie again in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, but hopefully the writing matches her exuberance.
Summary: Birds of Prey is a sizable improvement over Suicide Squad but lacks a foolproof plan.