Whenever filmmakers hoist their freak flag highest, that’s when Warner Brothers’ DCU has “peacocked” its feathers with the most memorable results. Let Shazam merge low-key horror influences with underdog heroics. Unleash Poseidon’s rage in Heavy Metal ways throughout Aquaman. Summon Harley Quinn to kick ass and chew pretty-pink bubble gum at the same time in Birds Of Prey. Creep into a title comic book character’s mind and splatter their essence all over the proverbial walls, as Cathy Yan does. Carnivalesque, Broadway-extravagant chaos as only the dame of madness, Ms. Harley Quinn, could ring-lead.
In this “Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn,” Margot Robbie’s jilted fugitive finds herself attempting to move on without Mr. J. Her grandest gesture accidentally announces to Gotham that she’s no longer untouchable, which ain’t smart when you’ve pissed off almost the entirety of a city’s underworld population. She’s pursued by GCPD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), threatened by germaphobic psychopath Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), constantly running from street trash – and nevertheless, Harley persists. How better to get over a breakup than distracting yourself with professional duties? In this case, locating and babysitting young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) while she, uh, “passes” a diamond that belongs to the very unamused Sionis.
Harley Quinn – as she’d psychoanalyze herself – carries a history of falling head over spikey platform heels for the wrong men, where she’d play sidekick in their stories. Screenwriter Christina Hodson, in response, writes male overshadowing out of Harley’s life and allows Harleen Quinzel to introspectively flourish (after necessary/dangerous “grieving”). Character building starts with sobby cartoon marathons in pajamas while chugging cheese product from a can and ends with triumphant girl-gang unification. Birds Of Prey isn’t just romantic emancipation for Harley. It’s a blinding spotlight on a character otherwise so easily represented by her adoration and devotion towards the Joker. There’s so much more to dissect and entertain, depths to Harley Quinn, and Yan – quite compassionately and prolifically – tells her story from a perspective that’s often lacking despite its obviousness: a woman’s.
Admittedly, Birds Of Prey is best as a team-up flick once Harley Quinn’s cuckoo worldview intertwines with other traumatized and abused women of Gotham with vengeance to spare. Early scenes are devoted to Harley’s heartbroken selfishness and, despite Robbie’s dedication to animated mania, her jester’s performance needs a little support to bear such weight. Once Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) swoop in, the tone evens out and we’re given more than just Harley’s gonzo style of self-improvement. This is, without a doubt, the DCEU’s play at their own Deadpool. It just takes a hot second to go from “flattery by imitation” to something Harley Quinn can champion as her own signature brand.
That’s not to say Yan’s command over glittery narrative zaniness underserves Harley Quinn. It proves much more fulfilling to watch her pine over a “perfect” NYC breakfast sandwich than some acrchetypal hunk who’ll inevitably shatter her heart.
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There’s a difference between films about female empowerment and films that earn their empowerment surge, Birds Of Prey achieving the latter. Montoya’s case is shrugged off by machismo-driven colleagues who in-turn steal her accolades, Huntress is one-by-one sticking arrows through the men who gunned down her family and Black Canary can no longer allow Sionis’ vile corruption of power. Alone, they’re victims. Together, facing unthinkable odds? They’ve collectively lost so much, what’s one more mercenary army to deal with? Yan understands the urgency behind Harley’s immediate survival, supported by “cunning” and desperation, yet remains fully cognizant of what saving Cassandra and defeating Sionis with a squad of jaded “bitches” means at its core.
There’s a turning point where Birds Of Prey elevates itself, unexpectedly, and it’s all about boots-to-throat action attitudes. Harley Quinn waltzes into a Gotham PD station with her projectile blaster then starts pelting cops with an array of bean bags, confetti bombs, and colorful smoke canisters. It’s so intrinsically Harley, down to Robbie’s devious smirk while dropping one-liners – but then choreographed combat goes a step above bombastic aesthetics. Harley starts bodying police advancers with punishing agility as pastel-vibrant clouds dissipate – an array of skills I wasn’t ready to behold. Quinn is a fighter, more than a prison brawler, and Robbie sells something that’s far more Atomic Blonde than expected.
Kudos to Yan’s consistent direction of fight sequences throughout Birds Of Prey, from roller derby zippiness to legit martial arts takedowns. You’ll get Harley’s oversized hammer, her penchant for using baseball bats, high-energy boosts thanks to snorting cocaine like Popeye gobbles spinach – it’s all so very Harley Quinn. Right down to the film’s finale in Amusement Mile, this Gotham landmark of abandoned attractions and carnival ruins. Yan never sacrifices the more glamorous, theatrical extravagances of Harley’s storytelling – stuffed beavers in tutus, pet hyenas, “Freaky Funhouse Chic” production design – but pushes her birdies to their physical limits with impressive fluidity.
Enter Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis aka Black Mask, who takes noticeable enjoyment exaggerating the character’s worst qualities (along with his closeness to Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz) above and beyond. A murderous socialite who’ll slice your face off, yet finds himself irreconcilably disgusted by the slighted hygiene abnormality like a snot bubble. Not to single out a male performance in this otherwise womanly-run ensemble, but McGregor finds himself one memorable carveout amidst the DCEU’s gangster villains.
From the simplest line readings like “THESE ARE MY THINGS!” when, yes, his things are stolen, to the most unsettling displays of dominance over those he rules in ways that redefine pure evil. Not to negate Robbie’s psyche ward sweetheart routine or Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s “assassin since childhood learning what friendship means,” but credit where credit is due, Sionis’ despicable nature only further highlights our allegiance to Harley’s coop-flown crew.
Birds Of Prey is Harley Quinn at her, well, “Harliest,” and I mean that with giddy enthusiasm. Margot Robbie’s dedication to Harleen Quinzel is transformative and cackles a most unpredictable charisma that proves perfect casting choices do, in fact, exist. Everything from sequined costume gaudiness to a soundtrack of “boi bye” bangers flips a finger towards Gotham’s broodiest stereotypes. Girls just wanna have fun, blow chemical factories to smithereens and beat the snot out of real bad dudes who deserve their emasculation – which they should damn well be allowed to. It’s a man’s world, but Harley Quinn takes back what’s hers with a smile, twirl, and power-packed punch that never clowns around.
Birds of Prey proves that it's no longer a man's world, it's Harley Quinn's - and we should be so lucky.