Movies based on DC Comics have tried so hard to follow the golden goose Marvel method that even now I’m opening a review of a DC movie with this sentence. Say what you like about Suicide Squad (and many have) the unarguable breakout performance was Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Drenched in ‘explosion at the paint factory’ colours and scatter-brained yet sharp and lethal, Birds of Prey puts her front and centre in glorious anarchy.
Sorry, lets not forget the full title of the movie is Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). This jam-packed sentence mirrors the screenplay by Christina Hodson (writer of 2018s Bumblebee). Quinn has been dumped by the Joker, but hadn’t realised that her innate ability to irritate powerful people had only not resulted in serious harm because of the protection that her power couple relationship had afforded. Now single, she has to deal with the breakup on one hand and fend off a bevvy of assassination attempts with the other.
As before, Robbie as Quinn is a delight. The movie trades heavily off of her performance and she delivers in mad-eyed bubble gum wonder. There is probably nothing more relatable in any superhero movie of the last 20 years (including the Marvel ones) than Harley lusting after a hangover-curing depression-busting egg sandwich (best in New York!) only for her to wail in despair as the greasy salvation is knocked out of her hand and ruined. Birds of Prey is at its best when giving Harley scenes to steal, and when letting her use her oft overlooked intelligence and psychiatric skills.
The problem, as is so often the case, is the plot. Cue one super important diamond that gets stolen from antagonist Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). The now exposed Harley makes a desperate promise to fetch it in order to save her life, and much of the movie centres around all and sundry trying to locate it. McGregor’s villain lacks any unique element to log in the memory beyond being the usual kinds of nasty and egotistical. Pursuit of the diamond is a great excuse to get the set pieces flowing but also hoovers up time that would have been more wisely spent on ‘the gang’.
The name Birds of Prey derives from an all-female ass-kicking troupe from the comics. Unlike Marvel who had the luxury of stand alone films to lay the groundwork, Hodson is limited to some paint by numbers character traits to the detriment of pace. There is a vigilante kicking ass and being ever so slightly insecure about her coolness (Mary Elizabeth Winstead / The Huntress). A no nonsense cop sick of getting no credit and no results through the system (Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya). A superhuman singer unable to escape Sionis’ clutches (Jurnee Smollett-Bell / Black Canary). And a snot nosed pickpocket who kicked off the whole chain of events (Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain).
Sure, when the gang are all together and in a massive technicolour brawl the style is sizzling and the fun plentiful. Director Cathy Yan blasts Birds of Prey with a high energy warmness that makes the whole thing a feast for your eyes. But we can hardly buy into a clubbing together camaraderie when the characters barely interact until the final Act. Harley is both star and anchor to the movie; in her wake there isn’t enough room left for everyone else.
Birds of Prey is certainly the most fun I’ve had with a DC movie. It is unpretentious, stylistic without being silly, and lets an already larger than life character unfurl her wings with glorious chutzpah. You’ll either be grinning so much that the bumpy pace and ‘what’s going on right now?’ confusion of the plot is inconsequential, or otherwise your irritations will get anesthetised by Margot Robbie cackling whilst she swings a red mallet into your face.
Words by Mike Record