Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a very long title for a movie; it’s also the latest entry into the ever-changing and increasingly unpredictable franchise machine that is the DCEU (and yes, this film is definitively connected to the same universe as the Suicide Squad film in which the main character first appeared). Directed by Cathy Yan from a script by Christina Hodson, it stars Margot Robbie once again as Harley Quinn, post-Joker breakup and out on her own. Unfortunately for her, being out on her own means Harley is no longer afforded the usual protections she would otherwise have as Mr. J’s girlfriend, and now a lot of Gotham’s most wanted, as well as one hard-hitting detective named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), are looking to bring her down, dead or alive. But they’re not the only players in the game; crime boss Roman Sionis, a.k.a. Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), has his own score to settle with Ms. Quinn, and as the plot begins to unfold, we see that she is not, in fact, the only girl in Gotham with whom he has a score. As loyalties are tested and new ground is gained and lost, Harley has to learn to live on her own terms, fight for and with people besides herself, and maybe, just maybe, lose just a tiny bit of her villainous side along the way (just the non-fun part, though – no need to go overboard). This movie also stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary, Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain, and Chris Messina as Victor Zsasz.
DC has been on a pretty consistent streak lately, what with Aquaman making $1 billion, and then Shazam! having their highest critical ratings yet for a post-Wonder Woman movie, and then Joker making them ANOTHER $1 billion (the highest-ever gross for an R-rated film) and garnering 11 Oscar nominations in the process (the most-ever for a comic book film). There came cause for concern, though, when it was revealed that the review embargo for this movie would not officially lift until the 5th of February (a.k.a. 2 days ago, depending on when you’re reading this). For most (if not all) other films, withholding full reviews until mere days before a movie’s release is a huge red flag, as it indicates that the studio likely doesn’t have a lot of faith in the film they are releasing. However, in the case of Birds of Prey, the social media embargo lifted significantly earlier, and given the good things people seemed to have been saying about it pre-review, as well as the fact that Margot Robbie had signed on to produce this movie, this entry into the DCEU seemed to mark the fourth feature on DC’s increasingly surprising winning streak. After the like of Suicide Squad and Justice League, the whole project seemed destined for a hard reboot, especially when Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck both seemingly left/were maybe fired from the project. And yet, after a slight leader change and some shuffling around, the soft reboot by way of bare-bones acknowledgement towards its past failings seem to have given the DCEU a new lease on life, and one that it’s taking with fervor – this extends, of course, to the near-endless fun of Birds of Prey.
I’m as surprised as you are, folks. Well, to be fair, I’m not surprised the movie is good (let’s be real, Margot Robbie producing a movie about a character for which she has such huge passion was never going to be dull in any meaningful sense of the word), but I am surprised DC has been able to keep this up for four straight films, with more great stuff on the way in James Gunn’s Suicide Squad reboot and the upcoming Matt Reeves take on The Batman. To be clear, Birds of Prey is not the best of the DCEU movies so far, and likely not even the best of this post-Justice League run, but the sheer entertainment value in watching Robbie and her girl gang kick all sorts of ass and banter off of each other in ways that feel perfectly suited to each individual character’s personalities more than pays for the price of admission. Cathy Yan has a real future in filmmaking, and it’s so nice to see a fresh new talent like her actually stick the landing on a major-budget feature when so many indie-to-blockbuster directors fall flat on their faces in the transition. The action sequences aren’t always super easy to follow, but the movements of those sequences are, and whether or not it’s more specific to the fight choreography or the performances of the women at the film’s center, each character’s fighting style can be so easily differentiated from the others without compromising what makes them great as a whole. Believe it or not, that’s a very hard thing to do with ensemble action pieces, and the whole cast, stunt team, and crew absolutely kill it when it comes to those sequences. It is definitely R-rated action as well – limbs come off, blood and gore comes out, legs get snapped clean in half; definitely don’t take young kid to see this if you’re sensitive to that. It’s very R-rated with language too, so ditto on the violence thing, but with language (although it does have a truly great script).
The performances are all really good too; some are even great. We all know Margot Robbie is the one and only live-action Harley Quinn forever and always, and she is (to borrow a term from the title) absolutely fantabulous, but special attention does have to be paid to the performances of Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, and Ewan McGregor. Although I don’t know much about the character from the comics themselves, Basco’s Cassandra Cain truly becomes one of the film’s most charming elements by its end, and the relationship between Harley and her is one of the movie’s strongest emotional thru-lines. Smollett-Bell, too, absolutely crushes it as Dinah Lance/Black Canary. The film doesn’t waste any time explaining her origin story to those that are already even somewhat familiar with the character (though she does get some background context in the film during a flashback sequence), but it also doesn’t need to do so. We understand everything we need to know about her through Smollett-Bell’s performance, and I can’t wait to see more of what she brings to this movie in the rest of the DCEU at large (if, indeed, it is decided by DC to continue doing more spin-off type films). Really, the only performance in this movie that didn’t impress me very much was Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya; it’s a good performance, to be sure, but we don’t know enough about her besides what Harley tells us to give context to what kind of character she is – we’re just told what kind, and then she acts like it; the same applies to Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Maybe I’m being too harsh here, but I do wish some of the characterization for the newer members of this ensemble was a little more organic. The showstopper, though, is absolutely Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis/Black Mask. McGregor is having an absolute blast playing this character, stealing scenes from anyone else who’s in the room multiple times, and even garnering a few of the film’s biggest laughs. This guy is just a world-class actor, and after being slightly disappointed by Doctor Sleep (though I am in the minority on that) despite respecting his performance in it, it is so nice to see him just hamming it up all over the screen for our enjoyment.
If there are any flaws in this movie, it may be that it spends so long setting up certain things well into the first half of the movie that one might wonder when the actual plot of it might get to keep going. Don’t get me wrong, the flashback stuff is fun, but it’s used two or three times more than it probably needed to be, and the wonky story structure may prove a turn-off for some viewers looking for a more straightforward narrative progression. This is the Harley Quinn movie, though, so its atypical structure isn’t exactly a surprise either. Other errors can be chalked up to getting too obsessed with needle-dropping its soundtrack during moments where a score might have been more beneficial, and DP Matthew Libatique’s camera seeming to have two different shooting styles, though one certainly does bring about some truly magnificent images.
Birds of Prey may not always work on all fronts, and could use some somewhat noticeable improvements, but overall, this marks yet another huge win DC’s feature films division, and a bold, fun step forward for the franchise as a whole. Margot Robbie and all her fellow cast members turn in good-to-great performances (especially Ewan McGregor), the action is very violent, frenetic, and increasingly inventive, Libatique captures some truly iconic shots, and director Cathy Yan/producer Margot Robbie are bound to have futures in comic book filmmaking for a while to come. Check this one out for sure, especially if you’re a Harley fan.
I’m giving “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” an 8.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.