Much like Harley Quinn herself, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a crazy, wild, chaotic mess (however, that subtitle is an absolute classic). The idea of a Birds of Prey standalone is a great one, and it’s one that Margot Robbie had been pushing for even before Suicide Squad was released. Harley Quinn largely came out unscathed of that disaster of a film and people were still clamouring to see that character grace the screen once again.
We follow Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) after the events of Suicide Squad, having gotten out of an abusive relationship with the Joker. Harley has a target on her back from just about everyone in Gotham, and her split from the Joker catches the eye of notorious Gotham crime lord, Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). He forces Harley to retrieve a stolen diamond from the young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). This sets her on a path with down-on-her-luck detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), the crossbow-wielding Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell)—a nightclub singer who performs at a club owned by Sionis.
I’m inclined to think your tolerance for Birds of Prey will stem from whether or not you like Harley Quinn as a character. Much like Deadpool, her giant, in-your-face personality might be the make-or-break of whether it’ll work. Is Harley obnoxious or is she cheeky? Is she charismatic and lively or annoying? These distinctions are why it’s so hard for me to criticise Birds of Prey, I just personally find Harley Quinn a bit of an obnoxious presence. Despite the derision Suicide Squad rightfully received, many loved that character. I wasn’t the biggest fan, but I was hoping director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) and writer Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) would be able to give Harley the spotlight and turn her around for me. Yes, I do think she’s a better character in this, but I still find her overwhelming. And it pains me to say that because I understand that’s the point of the character. It also hurts me to say that because Robbie is doing well with what she’s given and she’s clearly so invested in this character. There’s just the tiniest bit of humanity that comes through to really appreciate Harley amongst her chaotic nature.
What’s frustrating is that Birds of Prey can’t decide whether it wants to be a Harley standalone or a straight-up Birds of Prey film. From a story level, Hodson clearly wants to have her cake and eat it too by basically creating a Harley standalone with the titular team sprinkled in during the film’s latter stages. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is very underused as Huntress and this is all the more frustrating because she’s fantastic whenever she’s on screen. Smollett-Bell is fine as Dinah Lance, but the character isn’t given much meat. Every character feels like they need to be in Harley’s orbit but never overshadow her, and that’s understandable, but the film is called Birds of Prey and not Harley Quinn: Dawn of Prey (okay, that was a low blow). Hodson employs one of my least favourite—and very popular screenwriting tricks—of referencing how cliché a character is within the narrative, and this applies to Renee Montoya. She’s the cop who wants to get the job done, and yes, you can read that like it’s a ‘90s trailer voiceover. Instead of feeling ingrained into the character, it felt like her cliché tendencies were only brought up for a cheap joke. Ewan McGregor gives the best performance in the film, absolutely hamming it up to 11 as Sionis.
When the film actually decides to slow down—which isn’t often—it feels like there’s real potential to tell a rich story about women freeing themselves from the abusive relationships of toxic men. Yan and Hodson clearly want this angle to shine through, but it doesn’t hit nearly as well as it should have because it’s so laser-focused on being 110 per cent zany 100 per cent of the time, that this brilliant and timely theme can’t hit dramatically the way that it should.
Cathy Yan is a director who Robbie plucked from indie obscurity and she delivers a film which has the energy of a bloody pop art music video on acid. Shot by Matthew Libatique (A Star is Born, Black Swan), the film balances glossy and gritty from a visual standpoint very well. Yan clearly wants the visuals to pop, and they certainly do. Fortunately, all of the ugly murkiness of Suicide Squad is absent. But it’s once again frustrating because I’d be immersed in the colourful palette and the crazy pop art stylings of its aesthetic more if I was invested in the story or characters. As for the action, there’s a lot of it, and while it can feel repetitive at points it’s got some very nicely choreographed moments. It was obvious the action was constructed by John Wick directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s action design company 87eleven. Stahelski even did second unit directing for the film’s reshoots. Again, the action is well done, but it means nothing if you aren’t invested in anything around it.
Birds of Prey is an odd beast in that it feels very original all while feeling like it constantly takes from other films within the superhero genre. I can imagine one or more studio executives screaming ‘let’s make this like Deadpool’ in a pitch meeting. If Suicide Squad was trying hard to be Guardians of the Galaxy, then Birds of Prey is riding the R rated Deadpool train, but it does just enough differently on a visual level to not be a shameless pastiche. There’s even self-aware voiceover and Harley directly looking into the camera on more than a few occasions. I wish the voiceover added to the character of Harley but it’s more there to explain the plot and the film’s multiple time shifts—which felt very Tarantino. The relationship between Cassandra and Harley even echoed that of Logan and X23 in Logan along with Deadpool and Russell Collins in Deadpool 2.
I want to see more of the Birds of Prey; however, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is coming first so as much as Harley deserves a coherent direction, we won’t be following this team next. This is a far cry from the incoherent mess that was Suicide Squad and it’s clear Yan had a vision for this film in bringing a load of zany energy to the proceedings, but I wish it coalesced into a stronger whole.
Birds of Prey is in cinemas now.