Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn gets her own movie — and this candy-coloured, irreverently upbeat, frenetic and fluid comic-book caper proves both fun and formulaic.
February 06, 2020
The film that inspired DC Comics fans to ridiculously call for Rotten Tomatoes' closure, 2016's Suicide Squad was many things. Filled with nefarious characters forced to band together to save the world, it was supposed to be a Joker-led villainous team-up flick — and, while it ticked that box, it was also formulaic, bloated, unsubtle and overflowing with ugly CGI. As a result, it was mostly just dull and a slog to watch. And while the anti-hero onslaught is still getting a sequel in 2021, only one element truly stood out. That'd be Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, the Arkham Asylum psychiatrist who jumped into a life of crime when she became the jester of genocide's main squeeze.
From the moment that Robbie stole the show in Suicide Squad, a Quinn-focused spinoff was always inevitable. So, knowing when they're onto a good thing — and witnessing their now Academy Award-nominated Australian star keep rising in fame via I, Tonya, Mary, Queen of Scots, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Bombshell — the folks behind the DC Extended Universe have gone and done the obvious. Thankfully, the powers-that-be learned a few lessons along the way, leaning into everything that first made the anarchic character attract so much big-screen attention. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is vividly stylised, irreverently upbeat, and both frenetic and fluid. To the benefit of every fight and chase scene, it's also more concerned with eye-popping action choreography than overblown special effects. The movie's riotous mood, lurid colour scheme and kookily comic sensibilities can't smooth out all of its bumps, though, but put it this way: Suicide Squad, this definitely isn't.
After breaking up with the Joker (Jared Leto's awful green-haired version of the villain is nowhere to be seen, luckily), Quinn finds herself at a crossroads. Just like anyone who's newly single, she's not quite sure what to do with herself, other than drinking, downing comfort food, cutting her hair and getting a pet. Just when she's starting to reclaim her havoc-wreaking spark, she also discovers an unexpected consequence of changing her relationship status. Now that she's no longer the clown prince of crime's other half, every lowlife in town wants to settle the score for all the times she's done them wrong. One of them is psychopathic nightclub owner Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) — and, in trying to save her alabaster skin from her new number-one nemesis, Quinn gets caught up with a posse of other feisty Gotham gals.
Enter: Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a hard-nosed detective constantly overlooked by the brass; Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer at Sionis' club with a helluva voice; and the crossbow-wielding, vengeance-seeking, leather-clad Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Light-fingered teen Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) actually brings them all together, with Sionis' goons chasing her, too. These ladies comprise a disparate bunch throughout much of the movie, but — because this flick is based on and named after a comic-book superhero team — becoming a girl gang is blatantly on the agenda. Yes, even with candy-coloured trickster Quinn leading the charge and grinning away as she's doing so, Birds of Prey brandishes a familiar caped crusader template.
Besting Suicide Squad is an incredibly low and easy bar to conquer, which Birds of Prey does. Completely finding its own groove is a trickier task and, despite the best efforts of director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) and writer Christina Hodson (Bumblebee), it proves harder to master here. Sporting a punk-ish, perky, peppy attitude, Birds of Prey feels unique in the DC movie realm, even against other standout franchise entries like Wonder Woman and Aquaman. But its goofy, off-kilter vibe also feels just a few shades away from Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok on occasion. Quinn's cheeky, knowing, mile-a-minute narration, as well as the playful plot structure that comes with it, can also veer too close to Deadpool territory.
That makes Birds of Prey fun, purposefully chaotic and mostly entertaining, but also sometimes struggling to keep it all together. That's Quinn herself in a nutshell, though — and while this isn't a case of a film perfectly aping its protagonist in every possible way, there's still some nice symmetry at play. And, there's always something enjoyable going on on-screen. Often, it's the kinetic fight scenes, with credit to second-unit director (and John Wick franchise director) Chad Stahelski. At other times, it's the dazzling, glittering production design, or a memorable dream sequence that casts Quinn as Marilyn Monroe. Usually, it's the cast, which firmly pushes a diverse array of girls to the front. An over-the-top McGregor relishes his rare cartoonish bad guy role, but Birds of Prey's motley crew of female stars soar highest. Robbie most of all, unsurprisingly — and just as Joaquin Phoenix's take on the Joker looks likely to nab him an Oscar, it's a delight to see Harley Quinn still stealing the spotlight.