Film Review: Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) continues DC’s self-assured story telling temperament

Where does one start with Birds of Prey? With so much vibrancy packed into its 109 minute running time it’s probably best to follow the advice of the film’s queen bee, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and start at the beginning.

And though a product like Suicide Squad (2016) shouldn’t be considered the strongest launching pad in terms of inception – David Ayer‘s lambasted actioner was clearly a victim of being a little too anticipated – it’s undeniable that the live-wire appearance of Harley Quinn, especially as embodied by the comically capable Robbie, was its strongest ingredient.

Then Wonder Woman (2017) arrived the year later and broke the glass ceiling (and how!) in its determination to prove that a female superhero could play with, and in some cases dominate, the big boys of the genre; the fact that the film was directed by a woman and ultimately more beloved from a reactive point of view was icing on the cake.  And, going with that analogy, if Wonder Woman is the icing, then Birds of Prey is the oozing, messy centre – and that’s said with absolute love.

Colourful, over-the-top, nonsensical at times, hilarious at others, and alarmingly violent when it needs to be (and sometimes when it doesn’t) Birds of Prey places its bevy of beauties front and centre, seeking emancipation from both their comic book origins and the fandom’s expectation; counting down toxic-masculinity-driven rants in 3, 2, 1…

Though it’s titled Birds of Prey, it’s the film’s subtitle (And the Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) that accurately describes the product as a whole.  Whether you like it or not, this is a Harley Quinn movie through and through.  In a wise move from director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) and screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee), the film does its best to separate Harley from her past (Suicide Squad who?) and set her up as the capable, however unreliable protagonist we know she can be.  And in learning about just who she is, Hodson’s script isn’t afraid to paint her as unlikeable; in the hands of Robbie though it’s near-impossible for us to have the same reaction though.

After cutting ties with her unhinged beau Joker (and no, Jared Leto doesn’t reprise his divisive turn), Harley believes she’s capable of going it alone in Gotham City, though she’s evidently aware of how much immunity came with being the Joker’s main squeeze as she doesn’t announce her status update publicly – at least not at first.  When she does let the underbelly of Gotham know she’s a free broad, it’s all too clear that she’s not the most liked person.  As the film progresses and Harley’s capabilities to defend herself become more and more apparent (and increasingly violent too), it’s evident as to how underestimated she is.  And in being forced to realise her unpopularity, as well as the fact that none of the heavy hitters have her back, Birds of Prey projects itself forward with the type of bold mentality that the DC brand hasn’t embraced until now.

The story on hand is relatively thin from a structural point of view, but the components never feel in danger of wavering as Harley – in between wallowing over her break-up, petting her hyena Bruce (named after “that hunky Wayne guy” as she states), and searching for the perfect egg sandwich – barters for her life with kingpin Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, equal parts camp and bitchy, devouring every scene with a villainous glee).  A series of bank account details have been etched within the structure of a valuable diamond that Sionis believed he had in his possession, before street pick-pocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) slipped it from under the nose of right-hand Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), leaving the young girl inadvertently with a target on her back and a hefty price on her head; and seeing as how one particularly nasty sequence early on in the film indicates Roman isn’t above the murder of a child, her young age proves of no advantage to her.

As easy it would be for Harley to trade Cassandra’s life for her own protection against Roman’s goons, she sees somewhat of a kindred spirit in the young girl, a lost soul-type quality that she identifies with, something that acts as a catalyst for her to have the no-boys-allowed “sleepover” she’s clearly always dreamed of.  Enter the Birds of Prey.  Now, whilst the titular collective doesn’t come together until the film’s loud, brash finale, their individual energy more than makes up for the fact that for a film named after them, they actually aren’t a unified group for the majority of it.

As each individual component, the actresses on hand are pitch-perfect with Rosie Perez leading the charge as an oft-drunk, no-nonsense police officer whose glory is constantly ripped out from under her from her male superior who reaps all the benefits of her hard work, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead proves a comedic treat as Huntress (not “the cross-bow killer”), a socially awkward assassin whose had to go it alone for so long that the simplest of interactions prove more difficult than brandishing the multitude of weapons she has at her disposal.  The standout though is Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary, Roman’s driver and nightclub “songbird” (her voice proving to be her ultimate weapon) who, similar to Robbie, works with the dialogue in a manner where she gives it just as much canniness as she does clout.

Designed more so here as a flawed woman who isn’t above breaking a few legs to get ahead (and this film offers up a doozy of an example) rather than the psychotic, sexualised creation she appeared as in Suicide Squad, Robbie’s effortless comfort as Harley Quinn (as well as the fact this was all guided by women) is ultimately what prevails as Birds of Prey‘s core strength.  A bright, bold, often insane offering that exaggerates its violence and hyper-stylises its narrative recounting, Birds of Prey continues DC’s self-assured temperament of telling stories on their own accord, rather than trying to match Marvel with their intricate universe connections.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is screening in Australian theatres now

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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