As the saying goes, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Warner Bros. attempted this metaphorical larceny with their DC Comics cinematic universe before when they tried to turn Suicide Squad into their version of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, complete with neon-soaked title treatments, offbeat humour, and ear-wormy needle drops. But that was the issue (well, one of the issues): They tried to turn it into something else. Suicide Squad had already been on a wholly different, far more sombre creative trajectory when the WB suits got director David Ayer to change course. The result was a disjointed mess of a movie suffering a serious identity crisis which really only had a single consummate plus-point: Margot Robbie’s delightfully unhinged portrayal of Joker’s best squeeze, Harley Quinn.
And so it’s a bit ironic that Birds of Prey, the return of Robbie’s breakout character to the big screen, sees WB once again riffing on a genre-busting sensation from the competition. This time it’s Deadpool, complete with breaking the Fourth Wall, bone-crunching action, verbal diarrhoea, and wacky humour just one pair of ACME rocket skates away from a Loony Toons cartoon. The difference this time around is that this appropriation was clearly all part of director Cathy Yan (whom Robbie, who doubles as EP, personally picked from indie obscurity to helm) and rapidly rising genre writing star Christina Hodson’s plan from the get-go.
There are no half-measures here. Birds of Prey (full title: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) leans as fully into its R-rating – with liberal helpings of salty F-bombs and eye-popping, fantastically choreographed violence – as it does into its kooky tone. A tone set entirely due to this story, one of personal emancipation and accepting your true self, being told from Harley’s manic POV, with everybody else in on the joke as self-referential gags fly thick and fast. Just like Deadpool. Hell, Birds of Prey’s narrative structure even has Harley narrating past, present, and future events out of sequence with witty segues in-between. Just like Deadpool. So yes, the two films share a fair bit of DNA, but Yan mixes in sizable helpings of her own distinctly feminine voice and those of her characters to breed something new. Something uplifting and unapologetically fun.
Despite this film bearing the title of a DC Comics superhero team of which she has never been a member, Birds of Prey is undoubtedly Harley’s movie. It’s her personal situation, having just recently broken up with “Mister J” and thus no longer having his protection, that sets it all in motion. Everyone the self-admitted “terrible person” Harley has ever pissed off in Gotham City over the years is out for payback, including flamboyant crime boss Roman Sidonis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) and his gleefully homicidal henchman, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). More than just stepping out from Joker’s shadow, If Harley wants to not die a painful and gruesome death (and who’s a fan of that?), she’ll have to locate and present Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a streetwise pick-pocket who inadvertently stole something of great importance to Roman.
Also looking to get her hands on Harley, but in a much more legal and less slicing-off-of-her-face kind of way is Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a veteran Gotham City Police Dept. detective struggling against the underhandedness of her superiors. Then there’s Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell), a sultry lounge-singer in Roman’s club who sees her vocation forcibly changed to being his personal driver/muscle after he witnesses the ass-whooping she can dish out when she saves Harley from some scumbags during a drunken post-breakup bender. Finally, we have Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a mysterious assassin killing her way across Gotham, crossbow in hand, with her own personal agenda of vengeance.
Stodgy comic book purists beware though, as Yan and Hodson only copy these characters from the comic page in broad strokes. The nitty-gritty details of what makes them tick get tweaked a fair bit… and this is actually what makes them work so well. Not every character is layered as deeply as Harley – and they take a little too long to actually get together to show off their chemistry – but they all get their own little endearing quirks that make perfect sense in a forehead-slapping “Why didn’t anybody else think of that?!” way. (Of course Huntress would be tightly-wound and have an unintentionally hilarious socially awkwardness given her upbringing!) And the cast shine in bringing this all to light.
As a colleague put it, Robbie has become the Michelle Pfeiffer of this generation where people often forget how great of a pure actress she is. Even under the garish clown makeup, exaggerated “poi-fect” speech patterns, and never-ending self-aware cartoonish grins which all do occasionally get a bit much, she’s acting her butt off. So too does Perez, Smollet-Bell, and Winstead, all infusing their characters with infectious charm and emotion. Where the same happens in unexpected fashion is McGregor’s uproariously entertaining ham-up of the traditionally super-serious Black Mask… until he gets nightmarishly creepy, that is. His full-spectrum performance is everything you wished Jared Leto’s misguided take on the Joker in Suicide Squad would have been and more.
And besides for a bit of a slow start, Birds of Prey keeps these characters moving from one scene to the next with kinetic gusto across its 105-minute running time. Hodson’s script, while tackling that titular theme of emancipation with copious heart, is admittedly on the lean side, spinning a relatively simple story that’s only puffed up in perceived complexity through its time-hopping narrative structure, but there’s never a dull moment. There are plenty of moments you may want to pause to clutch a limb in sympathetic horror though as the film’s incredible action leaves brutally wrecked bodies in its wake. Yan brought in John Wick director Chad Stahelksi to help coordinate, and also got the actresses to train to do a lot of the action themselves (so no need to hide faces behind rapid cuts) and it pays off big time.
Back when WB originally rolled out their plans for the DCEU, before those were unceremoniously scuppered by Justice League’s failure, this was supposed to be a straight-up Birds of Prey movie with Harley Quinn off doing her own thing in a separate film. By smooshing the two together though, and using Harley’s bonkers larger-than-life persona as the jumping-off point, Yan has turned in a colourful riot of a film equally as much about breaking out of your shackles as it is about breaking legs with a carnival mallet.
Last Updated: February 7, 2020