Directed By Cathy Yan
Starring – Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor
The Plot – A twisted tale told by Harley Quinn (Robbie) herself, when Gotham’s most nefariously narcissistic villain, Roman Sionis (McGregor), and his zealous right-hand, Zsasz (Chris Messina), put a target on a young girl named Cass (Ella Jay Basco), the city is turned upside down looking for her. Harley, Huntress (Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Renee Montoya’s (Rosie Perez) paths collide, and the unlikely foursome have no choice but to team up to take Roman down.
Rated R for strong violence and adult language throughout, and some sexual and drug material
– Colorful and chaotic. Told by the unreliable titular character herself, “Birds of Prey” is a candy-coated, hypnotically rabid good time that brings to D.C everything that it had been missing until recently. For one, unlike the visually drab offerings that were “Suicide Squad” and “Batman V Superman”, this film supplants a vibrancy of color correction in its designs that faithfully emulate the rich textures of an immersive comic book. Equally as immersive is the story’s bending narrative, which, like the color pallet previously mentioned, bends and contorts itself to capture the mentality of Quinn in her prime element. Some genre films forget the most simple trait of a comic book movie; to be fun, and even for a film that is anything but faithfully adaptive, this movie constantly seduces you with all of its energetically toxic carnage that keeps giving.
– Fantastical set designs. Throughout a wide range of shooting locations both expansive and remote, the movie hones in on no shortage of detail that not only tells us a lot about the character who resides in them, but also supplants some practical influence that feeds into some top notch action. There is a fine use of C.G.I backdrops used to sell the decaying nature of Gotham’s crime world underbelly, but for my money it was the combination of clever Easter egg props and entrancing stages that very much felt like a character in the movie itself. For my money, the carnival house of horrors is easily my favorite, paying homage to the animated series where Joker and The Dark Knight did many of battles inside of its spinning rooms and twisting slides. It’s also a therapeutic release for Harley, who must confront her past of sideshows and clowns if she is to have any chance at a future. Visual meaning everywhere.
– Bone-crunching action. Not since the John Wick trilogy has a movie telegraphed its fight scenes so viciously in a way where I hear and feel each devastating blow. The sound design is echoing and full of pulse that resonates a horror-filled soundtrack with a collective choir for all of its victims. The fight choreography is the very best that D.C has offered thus far, investing in believability for its ladies to kick ass in a way that doesn’t feel hollow or delayed because of a suspension of disbelief. And the stunt work by some extra flexible men gave me several winces in pain during the movie that added an element of permanance to a subgenre that frequently knocks down instead of knocks out. I never expected a Harley Quinn film to be the catalyst for comic book action movies, and for me I would enjoy more of this kind of physical interaction over the airborne attacks that have become stale with redundancy.
– Sacred ground. No D.C film before this has been given the cherished R-rating that often oversteps boundaries, and while this gimmick is necessary to sell the seedy plight that women face in a world as evil as Gotham, the way it’s used throughout the film feels particularly earned and never forced to be something it’s not. The language is the most obvious angle, illustrating these characters in a way that, for once, makes them feel like legitimate people, and not saints that live and breathe without releasing anger. Especially as is the case with a collection of anti-heroes, anything less would make each of them feel soft, as it did in “Suicide Squad”, where convicts teased but never went all the way with four letter words. In addition to the language, the violence has no shortage of brutality, but none of it ever felt exploitative in the way that soils it tonally. This film could’ve easily become a horror film, but it allows the stings and crunches of the sound design that I previously mentioned tell the story, using it more as emphasis of reminder of the stakes that exist in this world.
– Empowering. I know some of you are worried about this positive, as movies with an agenda can sometimes feel heavy-handed for the kind of unique depictions that they are trying to convey. Well fear not, as this film doesn’t require itself to beat its audience over the head with feminist exposition, but rather focus on these isolated ladies who come together and find stability with leaning on each other, the longer the film persists. It’s a reminder that the best superhero films are often the ones that tackle real life social commentary in a way that features these exceptional human beings overcoming the same problems that we face every day, and this movie seems keen on reminding each of them how little they are in the eyes of their male opposition. It’s great that more women are seeing their stories played out in the superhero genre and on the big screen, but Yan’s direction proves that those things are better earned than constantly mentioned in heavy exposition, and it’s something that offers meaning to one gender while not necessarily alienating the other.
– Perfect casting. This is obviously a vehicle for Robbie’s Quinn, who not only expands on what about her mentally and physically makes her so dangerous, but also transforms herself once more to make her virtually unrecognizable. Robbie’s comic muscle is ten times sharper than it was in “Suicide Squad”, putting away the corny in favor of the charismatic, and the movie’s screenplay never relents on her middle ground territory that still sees her doing some awfully sinister things in the name of madness. Mary Elizabeth Masterson, a personal favorite of mine in contemporary cinema, sadly doesn’t get a lot of time to shine, but leaves a lasting impact with a rendition of the Huntress that is every bit cold and calculating as she is blunt in her honest deliveries. Ewan McGregor finds his own voice in this version of Black Mask, which carries very few traits of the comic book villain, but does allow us no shortage of scene-chewing instances where McGregor reminds us of the man’s world that would be nothing without a woman. Without question however, the show stealer here is Jurnee Smollett-Bell as the audibly and visually seductive Black Canary. Jurnee offers a burning fire in a look that most actors can’t attain in a lifetime of dialogues, and her energetic delivery through a mostly physical role is one that goes toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow with Robbie’s Quinn, giving us no shortage of intriguing side characters who will hopefully be in films for years to come.
– Song choices. While there are no shortage of Emo renditions for popular tracks in pop culture, the song’s dispersion at just the right time conjures up no shortage of fun instances to musically narrate this all-girls sleepover. I won’t spoil much of the collective soundtrack that feels like the “Guardians of the Galaxy” for this extended universe, but I will say that “Sway With Me” never sounded so sweet than it does in a room of high stakes devastation. There’s a cleverness contained that gives these songs new meaning in the same way Deadpool promised he was never going to dance again during WHAM!’s “Careless Whisper”, and even during no shortage of modern day trance and hip hop favorites that I couldn’t be further from the demographic for, I never felt like it missed one step with the consistency in attitude that the movie put forth.
– Halting progress. While I think the Harley narrator gimmick works for the most part creatively, the first act did have a few too many rewind moments that pushed the pacing of the modern day narrative further than I would’ve liked. I get that there is a lot of character backstory to tell here, but I would’ve rather they worked it into one continuous narrative rather than to stop every few minutes to explain some things that frankly didn’t require explaining. Likewise, the gimmick itself carries a bit of a plot hole, as Quinn wasn’t present during certain moments where she’s still telling the story, making it strange when you realize that she supposedly knows what happened despite her absence. Breaking the fourth wall is a cool concept made famous by Wade Wilson, but in that instance he knew when to let the visuals tell the story itself, and in Harley’s case could use the same restraint in how to manufacture a smooth narrative.
– Clumsy title. With the complete title of the movie actually being “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)”, it is not only unnecessarily long, but also doesn’t offer the best summary of what’s contained in its contents. For my money, the film should’ve been called “Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey”, as this is definitely Harley’s film first and foremost, from the abundance of screen time for the character to the first person narration that continues throughout the film. The Birds themselves are really just supporting characters, receiving anywhere from decent to weak backstory for their characters, and until the very end not exactly an origins story for the group that are given top billing with the movie’s title.
– Convoluted plot. In my opinion, this film should’ve tackled its synopsis with the idea that less is more. The idea that Harley Quinn has broken up with the Joker, and now this whole town is out for revenge against her since she doesn’t have protection is a story that writes itself. Imagine the paranoia, the urgency, the vulnerability, and none of it is really present in this particular movie, unfortunately. Once they establish the plot I just mentioned, the film takes itself in many different directions involving many characters, an emerging diamond subplot, a hunt for Black Mask, and a few other things that overcomplicated what should’ve been a simple linear direction. On top of this, Quinn seems to have no law enforcement after her for the minimally brief explanation given for the events following “Suicide Squad”, nor does she seem to have anyone outside of Black Mask’s gang still seeking her out for the bounty put on her head. It’s all ignored in favor of this diamond that is nothing more than a plot device in a film where it totally wasn’t necessary, and strains so much of the movie’s execution that had so much going for it positively.
My Grade: 7/10 or B