Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the big deal?
Birds Of Prey (or, to give the film its full title, Birds Of Prey And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) is an action comedy superhero film released in 2020 and is based on characters produced by DC Comics. It is the eighth film in the DC Extended Universe and sees a newly single Harley Quinn attempt to move on from her murderous obsession with the Joker by rescuing a young pickpocket from the hands of crime lord Roman Sionis, with some help from a gang of other female heroes operating in Gotham. The movie stars Margot Robbie who also co-produced the film, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Chris Messina and Ewan McGregor. It was written by Christina Hodson based on an original story and directed by relative newcomer Cathy Yan. Despite mostly positive reviews from critics, the film earned a disappointing $201 million worldwide, although this could be blamed on its curtailed time in theatres due to the coronavirus pandemic. Robbie is due to reprise her role as Harley Quinn in the forthcoming reboot The Suicide Squad as well as a possible Gotham City Sirens film.
What's it about?
Four years after the events of Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn is heartbroken after her beloved Joker breaks up with her and kicks her out. Moving into an apartment above a Taiwanese takeout with her collection of junk and her pet hyena Bruce, Harley enjoys a night out at a club owned and run by Roman Sionis—a crime boss rising in influence as the psychotic Black Mask. Harley gets drunk and accidentally ends up in a confrontation with Sionis' chauffeur before being rescued from an attempted kidnapping by the club's resident singer, Dinah Lance. Finally, Harley announces to the world that she and the Joker are no more by blowing up Ace Chemicals— an act that brings her to the attention of GCPD's Detective Renee Montoya.
Unfortunately for Harley, she is now no longer under the Joker's protection and soon finds herself running afoul of everyone in Gotham she has ever wronged— which is quite a long list. As Dinah is recruited by Sionis to be his new driver and work alongside psychopath Victor Zsasz, Harley gets mixed up with a young pickpocket called Cassandra Cain who appears to be hunted by Sionis and his men. Cain has stolen a diamond encoded with the account details of a massacred crime family and has swallowed it in order to prevent Sionis, or anyone else, getting their hands on it. But with every criminal in Gotham looking for them as well as an apparently new killer on the scene, can Harley get herself together in time before it's too late?
What's to like?
Man, this is one of those really frustrating films that gets a lot right but also makes a few mistakes along the way. Birds Of Prey is visually very impressive, developing an anarchic style of its own that mirrors that is its central protagonist. Yan marks herself as an emerging talent, keeping a lid on the madness despite the film's chronology jumping back and forth, unreliable narrator and unexpected flourishes like animated sequences and on-screen text. Mind you, she has some help from Robbie who is terrific as Quinn; her character is more developed and nuanced here than it was in Suicide Squad and she's more enjoyable here, displaying a sense of humour and antagonistic chemistry with her co-stars. Speaking of which, the film also introduces young Basco as Cain who holds her own alongside her more experienced colleagues. The film also has a great soundtrack as well which is worth checking out when you have the time.
What's most impressive to me, however, is the film's clever use of tone to match that of its central character. The first half of the film is all over the place, deliberately incoherent as Quinn struggles to land on her feet. By contrast, the second half is easier to follow and less demented because Quinn suddenly has purpose in her life. Granted, it makes the film feel infuriating at times but it's a clever take, allowing us to share Quinn's unique perspective. Finally, and I accept that this isn't a huge point, but it felt good to see Gotham in the daytime for once. For the first time in a long while, Gotham felt like an actual place rather than a dimly lit set with a rain machine stuck on all the time. As ridiculous and cartoony as the film is, it's indicative of the little things that add to make the film feel worth your attention.
- The movie was produced under the working title 'Fox Force Five'. This is the name of the pilot that Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) discussed appearing in during her scenes in Pulp Fiction about a fictional team of five female crime fighters.
- On the TV in Montoya's room, we see a brief clip of a clown taken from an episode of the soap opera Days Of Our Lives. The clown is played by Arleen Sorkin, a college friend of Harley Quinn's co-creator Paul Dini. Dini has stated that this particular scene inspired him to create the character and Sorkin would go on to voice the role for her first appearance in Batman: The Animated Series in 1992.
- Yan is the first Asian woman to direct a superhero film. She's also just the second woman to direct a DCEU film after Patty Jenkins who directed Wonder Woman.
- Montoya's character also made her debut in Batman: The Animated Series and this marks her cinematic debut, making her the first openly gay character in either a DC or Marvel movie.
What's not to like?
As I said, this is a film that gets as much wrong as it gets right. For starters, McGregor is a weak villain and gets little interaction with our heroes beyond screaming obscenities after his goons get beaten up. The only scene where he feels like a proper baddie is when he forces a woman to strip and dance on a table at his club; beyond that, he's toothless. Perez also feels miscast, not because of her performance but the action scenes in which the gaps in age between her and her co-stars are noticeable. She is obviously moving a lot slower and the action around her feels disjointed and staccato to compensate. I also took objection to the use of the Cassandra Cain name for a character who is totally different to how she is portrayed in the comics, in which she is one of many women to adopt the mantle of Batgirl. I'm no expert on the lore of the comics but even I recognised this flagrant discrepancy. Why use the name when it's an original character?
While I appreciated the film's anarchic style, I'm less convinced by the movie's overall tone. It happily veers from cartoony violence and comedy to brutal action scenes and copious amounts of adult language. It's a hard marriage between a character who was designed for a kids show and a restrictive rating, making the film a difficult sell. In the end, it's just a bit too unhinged for its own good. I enjoyed watching the film and it is better than the underwhelming Suicide Squad which is equally bonkers in places but lacks this film's sense of fun and empowerment. And while it's obviously great seeing a film written, produced, directed and starring women, it still feels like DC are playing catch-up to their hugely successful rivals Marvel. It feels like a first step towards something bigger and better and I sincerely hope it is.
Should I watch it?
It's far from perfect but Birds Of Prey is an entertaining enough picture that offers a much-needed female perspective on superhero cinema. Robbie's portrayal is great to watch, Yan's direction keeps the film fresh and distinctive and it offers up the usual blend of action, thrills, stunts and one-liners that fans of these films lap up. It deserved more love than it got when it was released theatrically, although I'm certain that the pandemic had an impact on its box office potential. Not every film can be Joker, after all...
Great For: movie nights in, women, break ups, fans of Suicide Squad
Not So Great For: challenging Marvel's dominance, chauvinists, hardcore fans of Batman
What else should I watch?
The reason I keep bringing up Suicide Squad is not just because that was the first film featuring Robbie as Quinn but because it is the closest film I can think of that matches the chaos of Birds Of Prey. Featuring an all-star cast and an ensemble of DC's most reprehensible baddies, the film is an engaging ride but quickly runs out of steam due to an underwritten narrative - in fact, it's Quinn's character arc coupled with Jared Leto's divisive portrayal of the Joker that saves the film from tanking altogether. Leto's performance prevented him from appearing in the stand-alone film Joker which, while not an official DCEU picture, was a disturbing psychodrama examining the origins of the Clown Prince of Crime and has an Oscar-winning performance from Joaquin Phoenix.
I do feel sorry for DC who were caught napping by Marvel when they started their game-changing cinematic universe (the MCU) back in 2008. They have been playing catch-up ever since and unfortunately, few of their films have stood out in the way they might have liked. Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice was a bleak and rather sullen affair while the film to kick off the DCEU Man Of Steel was equally a joyless outing for the most comic book of characters. Personally, the only film to properly stand out from the crowd is Wonder Woman which not only beat Marvel to the punch in finally producing a film with a female lead character but also had some quality visuals, a unique style and look and helped restore the image of the character from the cheesy Seventies TV show with Lynda Carter in the role.
Harleen Quinzel / Harley Quinn
Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Helena Bertinelli / Huntress
Dinah Lance / Black Canary
Det. Renee Montoya
Ella Jay Basco
D.A. Ellen Yee
Roman Sionis / Black Mask
Release Date (UK)
7th February, 2020
Action, Comedy, Superhero
© 2021 Benjamin Cox