Director: Cathy Yan | Screenwriter: Christina Hodson | Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor | Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures | Running Time: 109 min. | MPAA Rating: R
Birds of Prey is exactly the movie-makeover the character of Harley Quinn needed. With Margot Robbie providing the highlight performance of the abysmal Suicide Squad, she now gets to break out in a film that can better use her and free her from the tired superhero formula. No more stopping giant lasers in the sky or being pinned down in a shared universe. She now exists in a wild, gritty and neon world all her own that is all the more thrilling as the perfect hangover cure for the DCEU missteps.
Robbie steps into a much different role of Harley, no longer bound by the chains of her abusive boyfriend, The Joker. She has finally put the pieces together and realized it’ll never work out, casting off her man with a giant display of partying and explosions in Gotham City that nobody will miss. Since everyone now knows that Harley is solo, however, a number of different bad guys come out of the woodwork to exact revenge. They were afraid to her attack her before but since the Joker is out of the picture, it’s Harley hunting season!
Though Harley has a number of offenders, her most agitated of criminals is the sinister nightclub owner, Black Mask, played by an excited and vicious Ewan McGregor. Black Mask had honestly never been the most memorable of villains but when posed as a vivacious madman who fluctuates between a queer entertainer and malicious psychopath, there’s no forgetting this bad guy. This is very pleasing given that his scheme of swiping a diamond is not as intriguing and thankfully given the least amount of exposition and screentime.
Harley gets roped into the heist plot with a number of other women on various sides of the law. On the police side is Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a bitter cop who finds her campaign against Black Mask’s criminal intent held up by a stuffy work environment. On the criminal side is Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), the kick-ass singer of Black Mask’s nightclub with a conflicting view on justice. Becoming a key player in the mix is Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a thief of the streets who just pilfered the wrong pocket. There’s no Batman present in this film but maybe in time, she could grow up to become, say, Batgirl. And then there’s Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), struggling to make a name for herself and work her way into the third act, despite seeming to have a bigger story of revenge.
One of the biggest issue any film faces when the main character is the villain is the problem of likability, striving to either make the protagonist a misunderstood bad guy or a tragic tale of how one was pushed into a life of crime. Harley Quinn never falls into such traps, always feeling like a balanced anti-hero. Narrating her own story, she frames herself as someone who is full of more giddy than pity when it comes to her personality. Just when you think she has done something nice or is about to turn her life around, she’ll turn around and backstab someone, either figuratively or literally.
Director Cathy Yan gives ample scenes of fantastic fight choreography to take full advantage of that liberating R rating. Faces are slit, bodies explode and limbs bend in all sorts of different directions. Every fight feels loaded with at least one ouch-worthy moment and usually isn’t afraid to show Harley a little battered and bruised. The climax of a showdown at a carnival of sorts is a visually dazzling display of real energy and grit.
What’s perhaps the most troubling aspect is how the film feels a little overstuffed with characters in its Guy Ritchie style ensemble of clashing forces. Winstead shines the most in her straight woman role of never quite getting anyone to take her seriously but we get so little of her that she’s nearly an afterthought. Should there be a sequel of more vigilantes thrown into the mix, I dare wonder how much harder she’ll have to fight for her place on the team.
There’s a moment in the film where Harley spaces out seemingly for no reason and imagines a musical sequence of herself dressed up as Marilyn Monroe. What purpose does this sequence serve? Nothing but it’s damn flashy and pretty fun. I guess that kinda encapsulates what makes Birds of Prey such a fun movie. It doesn’t really connect to any other film, never fully explores the moral dilemmas of the characters and never really showcases a severe shift in Harley’s mentality (though it does make some good use of her background in psychiatry). But it does have a lot of cool fights, undeniable energy, and style to spare as it finds more interesting stuff to do with Harley than put a bomb in her neck and have her fight witches and zombies. Watching her skip around town warding off revenging criminals and befriending like-minded misfits is a far better use of such a character and a good sign for the future of DC Comics movies willing to try more.