BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs The World), Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Underground), Rosie Perez (Do The Right Thing), Chris Messina (Ruby Sparks), Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong (Always Be My Maybe), Ewan McGregor (Doctor Sleep)

Director: Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs)

Writer: Christina Hodson (Bumblebee)

Runtime: 1 hour 49 minutes

Release Date: 7th February (US, UK)

Speaking personally for just a moment, there are several reviews I’ve written in the past that I wholeheartedly disagree with now, and none more so than my original thoughts on Suicide Squad. If you can believe it, I gave the film a 7.5 at the time of release, and on subsequent attempts to watch it, I’ve found it is…nowhere near worthy of that score. To be fair, I saw the movie at a secret advance screening that began at 1am, so…yeah, perhaps my mind wasn’t in the best place and I mistook that film’s horrendous editing for me just being tired. Heck, I even favourably compared it to Fight Club, which…no. Just no. Yeah, past me was kinda dumb sometimes.

That being said, Suicide Squad did have many redeeming qualities, one of which being Margot Robbie’s fantastic performance as Harley Quinn. Even as many audiences disregarded the film itself, the desire for more from The Joker’s ditzy partner-in-crime was immense, and it seems Robbie herself was quick to pick up on what fans were really looking for. So now we have Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which partners Ms Quinn with several other badass ladies from the DC Universe for a zany crime caper packed with blood and laughs. In short, it delivers on everything Suicide Squad failed to and so much more.

Mega Sized Movie Poster Image for Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (#15 of 18)

Birds of Prey is a movie told from Harley Quinn’s perspective not only on a plot level but a tonal and thematic one too. Telling its story with frequent voice-over, fourth-wall-breaking, fractured timelines and fantasy sequences, there is a frantic and larger-than-life energy to the entire production that simply exudes fun. The plot itself is a fairly simple “everyone wants to find character and/or MacGuffin for different reasons, so protagonist goes on the run to protect character and/or MacGuffin” kind of deal, but it is told with enough flair and idiosyncratic characters that it’s hard to care.

Even though the non-linear structure occasionally ruptures the film’s flow a little too much, its vigour and charm never cease to keep up, and come the third act it all explodes into a satisfyingly joyous girl gang frenzy. The aim of the game here is clearly unbridled entertainment, but there is some added depth to the madness with its themes of breaking free from toxicity and patriarchy and learning to embrace individuality and sisterhood. Superhero movies like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel may have already delivered strong feminist messages in their stories, but Birds of Prey allows those themes to burst out with anarchic pop-punk relish. It’s not afraid to allow its women to be dirty or foul-mouthed or anything else atypically feminine, and that rebellious spirit is alone worth celebrating for a major studio blockbuster.

Image result for birds of prey stills

Whilst Robbie’s Harley Quinn has been worthily lauded, one of the issues viewers of Suicide Squad and fans of the character over the years have noted is the problematic nature of her relationship with The Joker. Her devotion and dependency on the villain may be an important part of her warped psyche, but unfortunately it also reinforces and makes light of the horrid toxicity of real-life abusive relationships. Birds of Prey handles this issue with tact, building the story and Harley’s arc around her not only getting over The Joker but finding herself again as an independent woman. This allows Robbie to bring some much-needed nuance to the character whilst still being able to embrace her manic and cathartic personality, and she’s clearly having an absolute blast throughout.

Though this is very much Robbie’s movie, and its biggest flaw is that she ultimately eats up much of the screen time of the actual Birds of Prey to their detriment, the rest of the cast all deliver wildly rapturous and compelling performances. Jurnee Smollett-Bell is a revelation as Black Canary, imbuing the character with a streetsmart attitude and moral code that sets her apart from previous incarnations of the character whilst still unequivocally being Dinah Lance. Though she mostly takes a back seat until towards the third act, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress is fascinating being equally stone-cold and endearingly awkward; her social inexperience and one-track mindset make her a gold mine of possibilities for future films. Rosie Perez is finally given her blockbuster due as the abrasive yet gold-hearted Renee Montoya, whilst Ella Hay Basco is delightfully cheeky as Cassandra Cain. Ewan McGregor eats up the scenery and spits it out as the viciously camp crime boss Black Mask, and is ably supported by Chris Messina’s quietly psychotic turn as Victor Zsasz.

Though Suicide Squad’s aesthetic and technical qualities ended up being a garish mess, there were solid ideas at its core that simply got lost or out of control. Birds of Prey fixes up these ideas to deliver a more streamlined yet equally madcap experience. The film is awash in the loud fog and neon of a graphic novel, bolstered by Matthew Libatique’s fantastically flowing cinematography. The whole movie is bursting with punk, femme and queer inspirations, particularly in the film’s gorgeous costume design packed with awesome outfits sure to inspire many cosplays. The action sequences are a bone-crunching delight, packed with superb choreography and ingenious set-pieces with a clear Jackie Chan influence; it should be no surprise that John Wick maestro Chad Stahelski did some second unit punch-up on this. Further bolstering the film’s girl gang ferocity is its soundtrack, packed full of contemporary rap and pop and tuned-up covers of classics, all from female artists. Complimenting Daniel Pemberton’s score, these tracks are intelligently sprinkled throughout and none of them suffer from being obvious needle drops like Suicide Squad’s fevered playlist.

Birds of Prey is a divine blend of superheroics and chaotic catharsis, perfectly embodying Harley’s titular emancipation from not only The Joker but the past sins of the DCEU. From beginning to end, it bursts at the seams with uninhibited enthusiasm and sass, reinforced by a game cast all clearly having so much fun and filmmaking unafraid to be gaudy and unapologetically feminine. As the blockbuster debut of director Cathy Yan, her voice manages to shine throughout and only further emboldens DC’s new approach to making their films individually distinct rather than Marvel’s uniform policy. Even removed from its comic book roots, this is a bold and unique action-comedy that has plenty of potential outside of the typical superhero audience, and hopefully this isn’t the last time we see the Birds of Prey in action. As for Harley Quinn, we only have eighteen months to wait before she we see her return to her old squad. I hear they’re being given quite the makeover… 

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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