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

Director: Cathy Yan

Writer: Christina Hodson

Cast: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor

Producers: Sue Kroll, Margot Robbie, Bryan Unkeless

Music: Daniel Pemberton

Cinematography: Matthew Libatique

Editor: Jay Cassidy, Evan Schiff

Cert: 15

Running time: 109mins

Year: 2020

What’s the story: After splitting up with the Joker, Harley Quinn (Robbie) has Gotham’s criminal underworld gunning for her, including mob boss Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (McGregor). To get Sionis off her back, Quinn vows to retrieve a stolen diamond from pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Basco), thus crossing her path with disgruntled cop Montoya (Perez), nightclub singer Dinah (Smollett-Bell) and vigilante Huntress (Winstead).

What’s the verdict: We first met Harley Quinn, the Joker’s squeeze and mentally scarred abuse-victim, in 2016’s disastrous (Oscar winning) Suicide Squad. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) proves three years is a long time in Tinseltown.

DC have (quietly) abandoned their MCU-style ambitions, favouring self-contained movies that cautiously leave the door open for further adventures (Aquaman, Shazam!, Joker).

Fittingly, it was the largely standalone-plotted Wonder Woman that showed DC how to course-correct. Released in the summer of 2016, while DC was still pushing Suicide Squad merch, it surprised everyone by a) being good and b) breaking $1bn at the box office.

Most importantly, since Suicide Squad belched into the world, the #MeToo revelations have shone a harsh light on Hollywood’s cockroach problem and the dodgy depictions of women onscreen.

Birds of Prey (as we’ll now call it) plays like a response to Suicide Squad’s most suspect elements. Totally absent (and not missed) is Jared Leto’s abusive Joker. Harley Quinn’s outfit here is far less what you imagine the dress code was on Jeffrey Epstein’s private jet. In fact, the movie plays as a surprisingly well-matched companion piece to Robbie’s Bombshell, released last month.

There is nary a decent XY-chromosome carrier in the entire movie and, bar newcomer Basco, the Birds of Prey comprise quality actresses arguably overlooked by Hollywood (Harley Quinn is not technically part of their team).

All this presumably stems from the movie star muscle Robbie can now flex (the film arrives courtesy of her LuckyChap production company) and the free rein afforded to director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson (who is currently developing a Batgirl script).

So it is with a tinge of regret that we must report Birds of Prey is good, not great, efficient, not inspired.

The set-pieces crackle with energy. Quinn’s assault on a police station, armed with a shotgun and rainbow coloured rock salt cartridges, reveal the fresh roads action cinema can take. Moments of gun-fu rival what John Wick has recently been doing (Chad Stahelski, that series’ director, is on 2nd unit duties here).

Robbie is dynamite as a let-off-the-leash Quinn, seemingly throwing herself into the mayhem as much as her stunt double, while detonating the fourth wall with Deadpool-style narration. Winstead, Perez and Smollett-Bell similarly have fun getting elbows deep in the kind of action Hollywood typically reserves for the boys.

Where Birds of Prey wings are clipped is in its story, which is so pedestrian, the film unfolds its first half in flashback to artificially inject sophistication. But, this is at the cost of momentum, meaning the story engine frequently stalls. Compounding this is, belying the title, the gang comes together late in the day. All of which is a shame as the cast gel so well you wish they were allowed more shared screen time.

Positives outweigh the negatives to be sure. It is hard not to be dazzled by the visual energy, including animation, a musical number and onscreen text that bizarrely echoes Scorsese’s The Irishman. McGregor’s Black Mask is a gleefully diabolical concoction: the result of what would emerge if Christian Bale’s American Psycho, every fanboy troll and an evil Gok Wan were thrown into an Acme chemical vat. And we’d like a Kill Bill-esque prequel following Winstead’s Huntress through her training and early adventures.

Reportedly, this is the first instalment in a planned Quinn trilogy, and with more gold here to mine, we hope this doesn’t go the way of Justice League. But, as with so many Hollywood actresses, Birds of Prey could do with a bit more meat on the bone.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
iTunes Podcast: The Electric Shadows Podcast

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