A passion project from producer and star Margot Robbie, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn marks an intriguing step into a very different direction for the DC Extended Universe franchise, offering up a film so very different from its predecessors that any connections seem almost coincidental. This spectacularly violent, brilliantly ridiculous and darkly comic film has a colourful punk aesthetic brought in from director Cathy Yan and thanks to some snappy editing, it rattles along at such a pace that I simply found myself transfixed. Birds of Prey is, however, a bit messy in the structural department.
The story follows Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who in a neat animated introduction explains that she and the Joker broke up, and has since decided to do what any (in)sane person would do in that situation: buy a new flat above her favourite takeaway, adopt a hyena and quite literally blow-up the symbol of her prior relationship. However, with the Joker out of her life, Harley finds herself the target of Gotham City’s best and worst, and becomes embroiled within the affairs of Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan McGregor, camping it up brilliantly), who is after a rather important diamond. Unfortunately for him, this diamond has been swallowed by pick-pocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who soon becomes the focal point of Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), her inside woman Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and mysterious contract killer Helena Bertinelli/The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Facing danger, death and possibly losing her favourite sandwich, Harley decides to protect Cassandra with the help of her new friends.
As the story is narrated by Harley Quinn herself, the first two acts play out as though she’s reciting the events, which is a neat trick until the film has to awkwardly re-wind events to fill-out important character back-stories. At first, it’s amusing but after a while, it becomes a little bit convoluted. When all is said and done, it feels more like a deliberate decision to help cover-up the fact that the story doesn’t really have much to it beyond the very large ensemble cast.
Harley remains the focus of the film throughout, which allows Margot Robbie – who’s great in everything she’s in – to shine. Robbie embodies Harley with both a quiet vulnerability and a maniacal violent streak, which thanks to a higher 15 rating, allows for some bone-crunching violence. Her action set-pieces are a highlight of a film that boasts some pretty impressive fight sequences overall. John Wick director (and all-round stunt genius) Chad Stahelski came in as a second unit director to cover the fights and it has certainly improves the film from an action standpoint. The sequences are bold, creative and impressively-staged, as well as showcasing the individual talents of each Bird of Prey. Huntress has her cross-bow, Harley has her mallet, Canary kicks people (a lot) and Montoya quite likes punching, which means that each character fights in their own specific style.
There is something to be said about how the film avoids the superhero aspects of Canary and Huntress, but both characters feel very well-realised in Cathy Yan‘s unique vision for the film. Smollett-Bell delivers a wonderfully subtle performance, but I would have liked to have seen more of Winstead’s Huntress, who feels a little under-served. Kudos also has to be given to Basco, who’s stuck with an admittedly difficult character in Cassandra but manages to sell the more complicated emotional beats very well. In fact, the whole cast are very good and I could spend the entirety of this review simply listing them all (there’s probably a few too many characters in a film that’s under two hours).
Birds of Prey is a very polished production, with vibrant cinematography from Matthew Libatique, eye-popping costume designs (which pay homage to classic comic-book looks without sacrificing on the film’s punk aesthetic), a fantastically zany score from Daniel Pemberton and some great direction from Yan. The various songs compiled for the Birds of Prey album are used to much better effect here than in Suicide Squad, which only gets a few subtle references here and there (it’s not necessary viewing for this film). Despite mentions of the Joker, Jared Leto‘s horrific portrayal from Suicide Squad is thankfully nowhere to be found, which allows us to focus on just how great Margot Robbie is as Harley Quinn. Christina Hodson‘s script is very witty and a little bit bonkers, with Harley’s hyena Bruce being a favourite. Going back to the structural issues mentioned earlier, I’m not sure if these are a symptom of Hodson’s screenplay or the final edit from Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff. Birds of Prey isn’t badly-edited per say, but the story does feel quite messy in places nevertheless.
Overall, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) won’t be for everyone. Its sense of humour is quite off-beat, the violence is strong if not gratuitous, and its going for a very different vibe to most superhero-related films. The Birds of Prey themselves don’t really team-up until close to the end of the film, which does make me wonder if Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey might have been a more accurate title in terms of the film’s narrative focus. That being said, I do think that Birds of Prey is a unique film its own right, and feels like a passion project for everyone involved, even separated from the connections to a broader DC franchise. I had a great time and found myself grinning throughout – particularly at some of the more macabre jokes.