Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) continues DC’s recent cinematic trend of making films in its superhero universes that don’t feel like typical superhero films. Joker, now academy award winning, was more akin to a drama than a villains origin story. In the same vein, Birds of Prey is more action film than an anti-hero film. It’s a fun ride that stands out through its entertaining cast of characters, vibrant visuals and a killer sound track.
Birds of Prey is set after the events of Suicide Squad (2016). Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has decided to break up with the Joker, but in doing so has attracted the unwanted attention of everyone who has ever had a grievance with her. It turns out to be an awful lot of people.
Criminal mob boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), known as Black Mask, has one of those grievances. After a run-in with Sionis, Harley learns that he is searching for a girl called Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) who’s stolen something from him. Harley promises to bring Cassandra to Sionis in exchange for her life. As we’re introduced to the other Birds of Prey, we come to understand that they’re either after Roman Sionis, in the case of detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and Helena Bertinelli/The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), or coerced into working for him in the case of Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell).
It’s a story that relies less heavily on its plot, and more on the way the story is told. The audience is delivered the story from the perspective of Harley Quinn, with Quinn narrating to the audience for most of the film. Initially this choice doesn’t feel like it’s going to pay off, with the film jumping chaotically between points as Harley remembers additional details she should be sharing. However, once everything starts coming together, it’s hard not to admire the great editing which showcases Harley’s somewhat psychotic mind.
Using Harley as the narrator and Deadpool-like fourth wall breaker leads to some great cinematic elements. It becomes a smart way to deliver character exposition and humour while still maintaining the flow of the film. For example, in a style similar to Suicide Squad’s name plates, anyone new Harley meets has their name flash on the screen, as well as details on what grievance they have against Harley. It’s a nice touch that adds to the playfulness of the film. It quickly becomes obvious that Birds of Prey revels in not taking itself too seriously.
That carries over to the film’s cast of characters. Robbie is as always exceptional as Harley Quinn, bringing out all of her quirks, but also her empowering features which, in true Harley fashion, always have a twisted caveat that you can’t help but smiling at. Perez, Winstead and Smollett-Bell are all great too, all receiving their own story beats, despite spending less time on screen. I would have loved to have seen more of Winstead’s Huntress who’s continually annoyed at the nickname she’s been given as a mysterious killer.
McGregor has a great performance as the villain in Birds of Prey. He’s menacing at times, but has a spoilt rich kid vibe to him that means you’re never really taking him too seriously. He’s basically just a means to move the plot forward and never feels as dangerous as the film wants him to be, but McGregor’s performance is fun and gives you a villain to root against.
“Fun” is the adjective I find myself continually using to describe most aspects of Birds of Prey. It’s no more apparent than in the film’s action sequences. From chase sequences to car chases and brawls with overwhelming odds, each sequence does a great job at feeling different and continually bringing something new to the table.
The highlight for me was a brawl in a police station between Harley and some prisoners and mercenaries. Harley’s a resourceful fighter, using everything available to her to overcome the odds. Director Cathy Yan brings out the unpredictable nature of Quinn in these scenes, such as Harley bouncing her baseball bat off the ground and into someone’s face, then catching it mid air, spinning around and smashing someone else’s knee. I found myself grinning ear to ear whenever the score kicked in and I knew another fight scene was on the horizon.
Birds of Prey‘s soundtrack is by far a highlight. It’s an all-female affair that covers the full gamut. There are rocking high-intensity tracks like Halsey’s ‘Experiment On Me’, slow, bass-y songs like a timely cover of ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’ performed by ADONA, and a captivating ballad of James Brown’s ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ performed by Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Birds of Prey had me searching for the soundtrack on my way home from the cinema.
Birds of Prey doesn’t do a lot to re-write the action film genre, but it doesn’t need to. What you’re getting here is a fun, colourful action film with interesting characters who shine when they’re on screen together. Despite a busy, dysfunctional start, Birds of Prey grew on me across it’s 100 minute run time. Director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson have done a great job at shinning new light on Harley Quinn and creating an entertaining flick full of interesting characters and fun action in the process.