For all the fuss about this movie, I expected Birds of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn to be a disgrace to comic book films. Once again it’s more a product of a certain demographic being upset that anyone else would dare play in their sandbox. Now we’ve established Birds of Prey isn’t a travesty, let’s tackle the question if it’s a good movie.
Your love of the movie will largely depend on your love of Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn. As much as the well-intentioned motive was in using Harley as the gateway for a Birds of Prey film, the film is really all about her with the other side characters being background players in her drama.
To some extent that was probably the right way to go. Robbie’s Harley Quinn is electric and very much in line with her current portrayal in DC Comics where she only rivals Marvel’s Deadpool as the most likable obnoxious and overexposed character. Screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) shows a clear command of Harley Quinn as a character incorporating her psychiatrist background, carefree nature and a complete lack of any trace of predictable behavior.
Robbie is totally game for anything. As one of the bright spots of the decent, but disjointed Suicide Squad, Robbie seizes the moment in the spotlight further showing her tremendous range. One moment she can be downing Cheez Whiz as a lovelorn ex and in the next she’s manically smashing dude’s kneecaps. Harley Quinn is a complex character and Robbie manages to hit all of the levels.
After getting dumped by The Joker, Harley takes a little time to cope before lashing out and letting all of Gotham know she and Mr. J are quits. That wasn’t the smartest move as everyone who feared Joker’s retaliation can now get some long overdue payback. And with a long list of people she’s maimed, insulted, beaten down and was otherwise crappy to, that’s a lot of folks gunning for her. Right atop the list is Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor, clearly having fun playing a more sadistic take on a 1966 Batman TV show villain).
Honestly, a film about Harley escaping people gunning for her in a comic book style John Wick plot would have been more than enough to carry the film.
Birds of Prey suffers from the convoluted attempts to work in the actual comic book Birds of Prey members — Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett, Lovecraft Country) and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Gemini Man) — as well as other established DC characters Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, The Dead Don’t Die) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). These characters are all viable candidates for their own films or TV series yet they’re all stuck as background players in Harley’s drama and barely resonate.
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There was a sizable outcry from comic book purists complaining about lumping Harley Quinn in with the Birds of Prey and those fears proved justified. Just like Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool films the easy and obvious route is to focus on the most interesting, unpredictable character while letting everyone else play the straight man or less effective comic relief. That’s the case here as well with Winstead having to play Huntress as a raged out vigilante and Smollett working overtime to make Black Canary more than a nightclub singer cliché.
Montoya is a great character in the comic books and she’s just the standard well-meaning detective in the film. Cassandra Cain is the biggest change as she’s a thief instead of a dangerous and silent assassin. The cast shows good chemistry in the rare moments they’re together, but too often this felt like the origin story paving the way for a sequel that hardly seems inevitable.
As far as over the top spectacle action, Director Cathy Yan delivers above expectations. The action sequences are intricately staged with a continual surge of energy, movement and brutality.
One of the major problems some action directors have in setting up fight scenes with women leads is they’re reluctant to ever put them on the defensive — much less take any significant damage. Yan understands that Harley and company can be highly skilled fighters and still take a punch or get thrown into something without looking weak.
The action scenes are a major highlight of the film as Yan just lets loose with Harley’s unique kick-heavy acrobatic fighting style. I’d love to see Yan tackle a Nightwing movie as she seems very well suited for Dick Grayson’s bouncy, heavy move set. Jennifer Lukehart and Florencia Martin do a fantastic job of channeling the vibrant colors of the Tim Burton era Batman with the gorgeous set designs.
It’s hard not to appreciate Robbie’s gesture towards sharing the spotlight and opening up a new wing of the DC Extended Universe, but this Birds of Prey starter film ultimately is at its best when the attention is squarely focused on Harley Quinn.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Photo Credit: Warner Bros.