Ever since she stole the show in Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie seems like she’s fully immersed herself into the role of Harley Quinn. Her ever-developing love of this character, led to her actually pitching an adult-aimed, all-female, ensemble action film, inspired by Jordan B. Garfinkel and Chuck Dixon’s “Birds of Prey” comic books, to Warner Brothers. This pitch became Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn and the dedication that has gone into creating Cathy Yan’s film was most certainly worth it!
Released to great reviews, Birds of Prey has sadly underperformed (though has made back its budget already worldwide) compared to industry expectations, which has recently led to a Warner Brothers-approved title change to “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey”. Whatever title you prefer, Birds of Prey is a joy from start to finish. The film sees Harley (Robbie) break up with The Joker, and she thinks she’s just fine but the truth is, she is an absolute mess, unsure of what direction her life is heading or whether there’s a point to it. But when young pickpocket Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco) steals something very precious from crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), this puts in motion a series of events that sees Harley cross paths with vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and police officer Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). Can this eclectic bunch form an uneasy alliance to face down one of Gotham’s most powerful and sadistic criminals?
Drawing from a range of inspirations including Rashomon, A Clockwork Orange, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, John Wick (Chad Stahelski assisted with some of the action) and the cinema of Quentin Tarantino (particularly Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction and Death Proof), with a kick of independent cinema spice (see The Heroic Trio and Tank Girl), Birds of Prey is a hell of a rush that feels creatively unchained. In the spirit of the aforementioned, Yan’s movie fizzes with giddy imagination, from the fantastic animated opening to some truly insane set pieces (including a stunningly shot and very original amusement park mass brawl).
Quinn narrates us – expectedly chaotically – through this story. As the film takes on a Deadpool-esque vibe, picking apart comic book cinema conventions, affectionately mocking genres and occasionally breaking the fourth wall to a degree but in the process feels even more relevant and bold with it. DC has often led the way for diverse casting (see Aquaman, Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman) but Birds of Prey proudly leads that rally behind and in front of the camera. Christina Hodson’s (Bumblebee) screenplay, just like Yan’s direction, feels unrestricted and exciting, and the energy is infectious. References to DC lore are splashed throughout, as witty comedy races across the screen, accompanied by constantly beautifully choreographed enthralling action, important themes and an unhinged, frenzied, explosion of fun.
Aesthetically the film is bursting at the seams and unlike any other comic book film. Erin Banach and Helen Huang’s costumes are eye poppingly cool, with wowing cinematography by Matthew Libatique that brings the spectacular colour-blasting and rollerblading action scenes to life. Meanwhile the soundtrack is just as wild as the action, with Daniel Pemberton’s score being a vigorous audible rebel yell and the chosen songs chime just right.
Robbie nails it as Quinn, making us laugh and feel, as the character is set completely free and the results are just as pandemonic as you would expect. She has come to simply encapsulate this character and is clearly having a whale of a time onscreen, just like her co-stars. Winstead’s Huntress is hilarious and deadly, inhibiting a sense of menace crossed with a hair trigger temper and often comically gifted sense of social awkwardness. Smollet-Bell’s Black Canary acts as a moral centre to the narrative, as she is a powerful character driven by survival but knowing what’s right. While Perez is perfectly cast as tough-as-nails Renee Montoya, as she toys with the cliches of playing a cop gone solo archetype.
Basco also does a great job as Cassandra, a streetwise kid who picks the pocket of the wrong guy, and Chris Messina is intimidating and skin-crawling as side-villain Victor Zsasz, who shares an interesting relationship with McGregor’s Roman. Speaking of which, McGregor’s Roman Sionis (aka Black Mask) is one of the most layered comic book villains in recent memory. Hiding his self behind a metaphorical – and literal – mask of fear; He is a flamboyant, paranoid and sadistic villain, ragingly exigent and yet powerful, and driven by his wants and pleasures. McGregor’s performance is a frightening tour de force, stealing scenes and leaving you uncomfortable in the face of his deranged acts. His timely gangster is one that uses Gotham’s criminals and their toxic masculinity as a tool for control and who grasps the city by the throat because of its already fractured flaws.
Whether it’s a liquorice gobbling Hyena or a mouth watering sandwich action sequence, Birds of Prey has anything you could want and is a bold, aesthetically busting, Tarantino-infused, attitudinal, empowering comic book blast that feels completely written and directed by one Harley Quinn herself.