March 2023

Birds of Prey (and the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn) (2020)


CAST: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina


Like last year’s Shazam!, the wordily-titled Birds of Prey (and the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn) demonstrates that the most enjoyable entries to emerge from the troubled DCEU are those that throw the dark and dreary approach brought into vogue by Zack Snyder to the wind and go into outright comedy mode (or, barring that, are simply unconnected stand-alones like Todd Phillips’ critically-acclaimed Joker or Matt Reeves’ upcoming Batman movie). DC’s answer to Marvel’s Deadpool, Birds of Prey employs a similarly madcap comedic approach, stylized action, a whiz-bang pace, and an unreliable (and thoroughly whacked-out) narrator/protagonist (Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, who stole the show in the Suicide Squad ensemble and has been rewarded with her own movie). While Birds of Prey is not as well-constructed as the first Deadpool, it’s in similar enough vein that it might appeal to some of the same audience. It’s a glibly vapid and chaotic hyperkinetic mess that never completely comes together, but it’s at least never boring.

After a quick animated recap of the backstory of Dr. Harleen Quinzell/Harley Quinn (played with gung-ho exuberance by Margot Robbie) and her role in Suicide Squad, we’re informed that she and her “pudding”, The Joker, have broken up, a development Harley has not taken well (she blows up the Ace Chemicals plant where she dove into a vat as a show of devotion, and buys a pet hyena she names after Bruce Wayne). But newly-single Harley is not left idle for long. Through a convoluted series of mishaps, she winds up with a young Asian pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) in her hands, who’s in possession of a priceless diamond she’s swallowed, which by extension mixes Harley up with a whole lot of people who are after the diamond, most pressingly unstable crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his sadistic henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). Harley’s solution to the conundrum of Cassandra swallowing the diamond in question is to buy a bunch of laxatives, which bodes better for the girl than if she falls into the clutches of Sionis and Zsasz, who have the simpler idea of cutting her open. Also getting entangled in the mix are police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who’s building a case against Sionis, mysterious assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and nightclub singer Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Ball), who’s got a “killer voice”. Ultimately, it’s girl power to the rescue, and the “Birds of Prey” are born.

Birds of Prey is glibly unconcerned about making sense, and is firmly style over substance; Gotham City hasn’t been this cartoonish and stylized since the nineties, especially when we climax in an abandoned over-the-top fairground that looks like something Tim Burton would have come up with. The action sequences have a hyper-stylized kinetic kick pumped up with a busy rock and pop-infused soundtrack (one scene of Harley kicking a lot of ass is set to Heart’s “Barracuda”), and unsurprisingly considering it’s starring, written, and directed by women, there’s a feminist girl power angle, with all of the women getting a chance to do their share of butt-kicking (Margot Robbie gets several fight scenes where she gets to takes down multiple men, and eventually all the women team up to fight hordes of henchmen). There’s certainly no shortage of “girl power” in Birds of Prey, and ethnically diverse girl power at that (speaking of representation, Renee Montoya’s lesbianism, a faithful detail to the comics, is casually acknowledged, and there’s thinly-veiled homoerotic undertones in the relationship between Sionis and his lieutenant Zsasz). Christina Hodson’s script isn’t as sharp or daring as Deadpool, but there’s plenty of amusingly quirky moments, including the repeated gimmick of a freeze-frame identifying the latest adversary and what their beef with Harley is (after breaking up with The Joker and now being considered fair game, Harley realizes an awful lot of people want to kill her), the pet hyena named Bruce, and Harley’s observation that Renee Montoya grew up watching too many cop shows and talks like a cheesy TV show detective (eventually there’s an intentionally cliched “turn in your badge and your gun!” moment). There’s also a surreal interlude where Harley disassociates while under interrogation and goes into a strange fantasy of reenacting Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”. Like Deadpool, Harley is an unreliable narrator, and like Deadpool we follow a non-linear narrative with flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks (at one point, Harley realizes she hasn’t properly introduced Huntress and interrupts the action to give us her backstory montage).

One of the biggest issues some will take with the movie is that, rather than being titled Birds of Prey with Harley Quinn’s name in the subtitle, things would have been more accurately switched around. The Birds of Prey feel like they’ve stumbled into a Harley Quinn movie, and with truncated backstories and too little time spread around between too many characters, the Birds of Prey are thinly-developed and their origin feels tacked on as an afterthought. Also, while few viewers had a hankering to see Jared Leto’s misbegotten version of “Mister J” again (he’s doomed to be The Forgotten Joker, sandwiched between Heath Ledger’s and Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning performances), the amount of time the movie spends name-dropping The Joker while keeping him offscreen feels like an awkward tease. Nor is there any Batman cameo, though this is likely because Birds of Prey is a follow-up to Suicide Squad and as such exists in a world where Batman was played by Ben Affleck, who had already moved on by the time it came along.

Considering this movie exists because she stole the show in Suicide Squad, it’s no surprise that the best thing about Birds of Prey is Margot Robbie’s thoroughly whacked-out, madcap, human Loony Tunes character version of Harley Quinn, who this time gets to own the whole movie and dives right in with bubbly glee. It’s easy to see that Robbie immensely enjoys playing the character, and her exuberance makes her Harley fun to watch. Another cast member who’s plainly enjoying himself is Ewan McGregor, getting the chance to let loose and chew into the scenery as a campy, flamboyant Roman Sionis who veers unpredictably between playfulness and viciousness (although he only dons the “Black Mask” for a few minutes during the climax, and his right-hand man Chris Messina’s Zsasz is arguably more menacing than him). McGregor’s off-the-wall version of Sionis is enjoyable, although his comeuppance is a little underwhelming. In the supporting cast, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jurnee Smollett-Ball get to do their share of butt-kicking, while Rosie Perez is a bit stuck in the mode of a cliched tough-talking hard-drinking detective (though given Harley pokes fun at Montoya acting like a cheesy TV cop, maybe that’s intentional). The weak link is Ella Jay Basco, who’s lack of acting ability and sappy “bonding” with Harley drags proceedings down whenever she’s the center of attention; in this regard, she is much to this movie as Julian Dennison’s Russell was to Deadpool 2.

Birds of Prey is gleefully style over substance, throwing a hyperkinetic sensory overload at the audience to overwhelm concerns with things like narrative, logic, or character. However, it also throws enough stylized action, off-the-wall comedy, and over-the-top exuberance at the screen that, while this unabashedly hot mess never quite all comes together, it at least holds the attention. If the worst sin of a movie is to be simply boring, it avoids that pitfall. Birds of Prey is flawed, but a blast.