Movie Review: ‘Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn’

Director: Cathy Yan

Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor

Plot: Lunatic criminal Harley Quinn has broken up with Joker, and without his protection she has deranged crime-lord Roman Sionis gunning for her. As things escalate Harley teams with other enemies of Sionis to make a stand.

Review: We weren’t sure what to expect from this cinematic adaptation of the on and off again Birds of Prey comic series, which often showcases the superheroines and femme fatales of the DC universe. One on hand, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was the one strongest part of Suicide Squad and we’re happy to see more of her without the deadweight of Leto’s Joker. On the other hand we would like to see some of the cool characters and premise of the Birds of Prey being given a good depiction on the screen. All of the advertising pointed to this being a showcase for Harley Quinn rather the ensemble cast Birds of Prey should be. We were a bit miffed at that.

Turns out that it is mostly a Harley Quinn showcase…but it’s also a really good screwball action romp with some electric characters. So we don’t mind.

In spite of what the second trailer seems to suggest, Harley (Robbie) does not kill Joker in this movie. After we get a funky animated backstory (in which Joker noticeably appears in his classic design, no weird tattoos), we see that Harley has been dumped but is still banking on Joker’s reputation to protect her. When word gets out that she’s a single agent, all manner of people seeking revenge appear out of the woodwork. Eventually the psychotic gang leader Roman Sionis (McGregor) drags her in and she’s forced to take on a mission for him to avoid being flayed by Mr. Zsasz (Messina).

Harley is sent to retrieve Cassandra Cain (Basco), a juvenile pickpocket who has inadvertently got her hands on a diamond that is of particular interest to Sionis. Caught up in the mayhem that ensues is grizzled police detective Renee Montoya (Perez), Sionis’ driver and nightclub singer Black Canary (Smollett-Bell) and socially awkward assassin Huntress (Winstead). As Harley is put in more danger she’s torn between protecting the young Cassandra and getting herself protection. Eventually all five women land in Sionis’ crosshairs and must band together to fight off his army of henchmen.

It’s hard to summarise this plot because the first half jumps around all over the place, but it is by design. Harley Quinn is setting up the story herself and runs away on tangents and stops the action to explain people’s backstory and how they all wound up connected in this caper. This proves effective for the origin stories of these disparate characters, as the movie would have felt like an episodic, plodding checklist of tropes without it. This way the story maintains a rapid pace with regular action and lunacy evenly spaced out. For a moment it feel like all the different story threads are going to pull together in an arbitrary, plot convenient way, but having a common enemy makes it work for the action-packed third act.

We don’t need to say much more about Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn. She had the performance down in Suicide Squad, and has only refined it since then. It’s clear right out the gate that Robbie has dedicated herself to capturing this character and fully understands what makes her such a fan favourite. Ewan McGregor matches her energy as Sionis, or The Black Mask. He’s looney and meshes his well established charm with an unpredictable menace. They never explain why he puts on the skull mask at the end, but it’s not important in the grand scheme of things. The rest of the Birds of Prey are all very cool characters, but don’t have as much screen time to play with as Robbie and McGregor.

This is an unexpected win for the DC movie franchise. It doesn’t completely divorce itself from the established styles used in Suicide Squad, but the fairly new director Cathy Yan doesn’t let it pull this adventure down. Like Harley Quinn, this movie wants people to know that it’s doing its own thing from now on. Margot Robbie has the producer’s chair, and it looks like she knows what worked and what didn’t.

Birds of Prey isn’t going to be a hit with comic purists, as it reworks all the characters except Harley, and it isn’t going to make the MCU sweat. What it does is deliver laughs, action and madness in equal measure and we wouldn’t say no to a sequel. Put Oracle and Lady Blackhawk in it next time for good measure.

Rating: SEVEN out of TEN