BIRDS OF PREY Review
After the chaos of Justice League in 2017, Warner Bros. and DC have slowly stepped away from a shared cinematic universe to focus on good stories with the plethora of unique and interesting characters they have that don’t wear a bat costume or a ‘S’. It allows them to do something Marvel won’t which is allow directors to realise their vision to it’s full potential. The result of this new approach pays off with one of the wildest, imaginative and creative superhero films to date.
The mouthful of Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, focuses on Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn who, after breaking up with the Joker, tries to find herself without Mr. J. Enter Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who form the titular Birds and work with Harley to protect 13-year old Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) from the ruthless Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
While lengthy, the title is also misleading in positing the Birds of Prey as the focus, when the focus is on Robbie’s crazed anti-hero, Harley Quinn. The rest of the cast have their moments to shine, some more so than others, but this is Harley’s emancipation from Joker and her omniscient narration we follow. Robbie is still great as Harley and thankfully this time, the movie matches her talent. She is more sympathetic as we see her handling her break up, like a champ; by watching cartoons in a pink, bunny onesie while crying and squirting easy cheese in her mouth.
However, placing the focus on Harley results in the rest of the team being sidelined. Renee Montoya is lamp-shaded as the cliched, renegade cop which, Harley narrates, “speaks only in bad 80s cop show one-liners”. Cassandra Cain is a snarky thief, who is either a MacGuffin or supports Harley’s emotional development, and Huntress just appears in the third act before given a plot relevant, brief backstory. She is a stand-out when on screen, but that is sadly not often enough. The one who is most fleshed-out is Smollett’s Black Canary who works under Black Mask. Initially, she is reluctant about heroism, with Smollett giving an incredibly subtle performance by conveying her conflict with a flinch of her eyes. When the team are together, their chemistry is electric and leaves you want to see more of just the team without Harley.
They say a hero is only as good as their villain, so when your hero is an empathetic psychopath, your villain has to be demonstrably evil. Enter Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask who is a whirlwind of camp and vile villainy. He steals the movie with his glittery suits and wild outbursts of insecure rage. McGregor is having a ball, channelling Jim Carrey circa-The Mask, and switching between smarmy prick and man-child. He’ll hang a family upside, cut off their faces one by one before feeling pity on the daughter until he notices a snot bubble in her nose and changing his mood to disgust.
The characters, and the film as whole, benefit as a result of director Cathy Yan, the first Asian-American director of a superhero film. Yan presents the women as women, not the masculine ‘strong, female lead’. Each of the Birds have their own weaknesses; Harley’s selfishness; Black Canary’s passiveness; Montoya’s obsession and Huntresses aggression. Their costuming also reflects a female vision, with Erin Benach creating funky and instantly memorable costumes. Gone are the slow pans over Harley in fishnet stockings, non-existent hot pants and tight-fitting top. Instead, the costumes are practical and natural, like Harley’s hodgepodge of clothes feels almost home made expressing her fractured mental state. Little personal touches, like a throw away line about needing a hair tie in the final action sequence referring to the trend of female superheroes with luscious, flowing hair, highlight the importance of female told stories about women.
Along with the fresh production design, the action choreography is next level for a superhero film. There is not a CGI flip or creature in sight, instead Yan delivers slick, tightly choreographed fights that match that of the John Wick films, on style and brutality. One fight in a police evidence locker is particularly memorable as Harley gets cocked-up and pummels goons with a baseball bat as Spiderbait’s ‘Black Betty’ plays. Its head-bangingly kick-ass.
Sadly, the film is let down by its structure, which flashbacks a headachingly amount in the first act that it makes it difficult to place the sequence of events. It tries to match the narrator’s own fractured headspace and emulate the feel of someone telling a story, but it doesn’t pay off.
Birds of Prey is a breath of fresh air, for DC and superhero films, with its gorgeous production design, kickass action sequences, relatable and memorable characters that all benefit from a singular, important female driven voice.