Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) Review

Birds of Prey continues the winning streak of risk-taking, innovative and director-driven films that DC has been putting out recently.

Birds of Prey was conceived along with a bunch of other DC projects right after Suicide Squad’s smash success, especially with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. The character made her first live-action appearance in David Ayer’s 2016 ensemble. While Suicide Squad itself saw mixed reviews at best, DC was confident in keeping Harley around for future spinoffs like a Harley & Joker, Gotham City Sirens and Birds of Prey. So when Robbie personally pushed for Birds of Prey to get made, it piqued my interest. I’ve only known about the property a little, having never read much of those comics.

To say that Birds of Prey exceeded my expectations is an understatement. Directed by Cathy Yan, a relatively unknown director of indie fame, the film is a bold move for DC/Warner Bros. It continues the winning streak of risk-taking, innovative and director-driven films that DC has been putting out recently. The first of these starts off with the film being rated R and making good use of it. There’s plenty of cursing and gore in the film, but none of it is gratuitous.

The film stars Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Chris Messina, and Ewan McGregor as Black Mask. With ensemble films, you run into the risks of not giving each character enough time for development. It’s certainly present here, but less so than I expected. Each character is given just enough history for us to care, with the rest chewing the scenery. It’s a fun dynamic, one which makes everyone fun to watch.

Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is once again the centre of attention here. It seems like Robbie has finally made the character her own, carving out a new identity that is not dictated by style, but substance. By choosing the also produce the film, she’s made sure that every action that Harley takes comes from the core of her character. The same goes for Ewan McGregor, who’s just so damn fun to watch, regardless of the ruthless actions he takes. Beware though, die-hard comic book fans might not like the direction they take these characters, especially McGregor’s Roman Sionis (aka Black Mask). But once you look past that, you’ll see Birds of Prey as DC’s most progressive film since, well, quite a while.

Birds of Prey takes the best parts of Suicide Squad and Deadpool and blends them together seamlessly. Told from Harley’s perspective, you’ll constantly find yourself (as an audience) being addressed by Joker’s ex-girlfriend. As such, the storytelling itself is skewed in terms of structure, with the first half being sort of out of order.

Let’s get back to the story then, which is where things start to fall apart. Much like Deadpool 2, Birds of Prey has its own snarky kid who brews trouble for everyone – Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). It doesn’t take much time for her to get annoying, being more of an excuse to bring together the damsels into distress. Thankfully though, the rest of the supporting cast is fun to watch, especially Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who brings a strong performance as Dinah Lance to the table. I’ve been a big follower of the CW’s Arrowverse, and Smith’s Black Canary is one for the ages. While she doesn’t get to use her powers much, it’s a great foundation for the character to build upon. Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya is great, but Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress steals the show, if only in small doses.

I have to give props to Warner Bros. for bringing in Cathy Yan to helm the project. While she’s relatively unknown, I’m confident that after Birds of Prey, she’ll be getting a lot of offers to work on more blockbusters. The way she handles action is gorgeous, giving enough breathing (and beating) space for characters without extensive cutting. It’s mildly reminiscent of the John Wick films, which makes sense as the action scenes were choreographed by Chad Stahelski (John Wick’s director). Yan manages to cross genres within this one film, with one scene feeling like something out of a sitcom, to another feeling right in place inside the Batman: Arkham games. It’s toxic, brutal but also gleefully fun, just like Harley Quinn.

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