REVIEW: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)

Some time after the events of Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) breaks up with the Joker. Without the Joker’s protection, she is soon targeted by every Gotham criminal with a grudge against her, including gangster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Sionis is on the hunt for a diamond implanted with the details of the Bertinelli family fortune; a diamond that is unexpectedly lifted by pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who goes on the run with Harley while police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) investigates the case, lounge singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollet-Bell) turns informant against Sionis, and the mysterious “crossbow killer” (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) begins assassinating members of the Gotham underworld one by one.

It is fair to say that Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) has an overly busy plot to match its overly busy title. The film juggles an awful lot of characters at the same time, jumping back and forth from one to another while also throwing in a complicated non-linear plot for good measure. One could never accuse it of being too simple or boring, but there is a solid argument to accuse it of being unnecessarily untidy. There is a lot of colour, movement, and comedic banter, but once or twice the film would really benefit from slowing down and taking a breath. There is a distinctive tone and comedic energy at work, but as the saying goes you can have too much of a good thing.

Within all of the chaos – like someone jammed sound and fury into a blender – there are some distinctive and original variations on the regular superhero movie tropes. For one thing, pretty much all of the characters fight dirty. For another, there is not really a straight-up heroic character in the bunch. Everybody is either a criminal, or works for one, and detective Renee Montoya (superbly played by the film’s best asset Rosie Perez) is too angry and violent to really come across as entirely good-hearted. There is also a tremendous amount of female energy here: asides from the villains, the lead cast are all women. The screenwriter, Christina Hodson, is a woman. The director, Cathy Yan, is a woman. There is no male gaze at work, and no one is excessively sexualised. It helps to make Birds of Prey feel hugely refreshing.

Margot Robbie adjusts her performance as Harley Quinn, effectively to give her more agency and control. The character’s aesthetic shift further away from cheerleader-chic to straight-up punk; in fact the present version of the character owes such a debt to cult comic character Tank Girl that Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin should demand royalty payments. Beyond Harley, the lead characters vary wildly from a wonderful fidelity to the source material (Montoya) to faithful in name only (Cassandra Cain). Comic book purists are going to have conniptions. Viewers less au fait with DC Comics will have a ball. One of the highlights is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Helena Bertinelli, aka the Huntress. In the comics she’s a grim-faced and obsessive vigilante. The movie equivalent clearly wants to be grim and obsessive, but comes off as too adorably nervous to pull it off.

While the narrative is a bit of a mess, it should be noted that the action is excellent. A climactic fight sequence in an amusement park funhouse does an excellent job of navigating multiple characters in varied punch-ups and martial arts routines, while never losing sight of where each character is, and dropping in small moments that you simply would never see in an action scene written or directed by men. The choreography and clean photography I credit to second unit director Chad Stahelski (director of the John Wick trilogy). The tone and female angle I credit to Hodson and Yan.

In the end, Birds of Prey is a little too fast, busy, and loud to entirely work, but it has a bright energy, a great sense of humour, and genuinely likeable characters. In the growing pantheon of post-Dark Knight DC Films it is definitely in the upper category alongside Wonder Woman, Shazam!, and Aquaman. After the uneven bloat of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Justice League, it is a joy to see this extended franchise finally find its footing.

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