Review – Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Release Date: February 7, 2020
Director: Cathy Yan
Writer: Christina Hodson
Stars: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor
MPAA Rating: R
It’s a good sign when my biggest complaint coming out of a film is: “I wish the dance number had gone on longer.”
That was my exact feeling coming out of Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. I loved the characters, the visuals and the storytelling so much that I found myself feeling disappointed that the lurid, outlandish comic book film starring a violent clown on roller skates battling a 20s gangster with a penchant for appropriative masks showed restraint in depicting the fantasy sequence where our hero imagines herself performing an elaborate dance sequence set to Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.”
If, like me, you loved Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, but found yourself underwhelmed by the film as a whole, you’ll be happy to hear that Birds of Prey is the Harley film you’ve been waiting for. (You also, like me, may be relieved to hear that Jared Leto’s Joker is nowhere to be seen.) The film takes place just after Harley has broken up with her beloved Mr. J (“for good this time,” she promises), which is definitely the healthiest emotional choice she can make, but one that leaves her open to retaliation from those in Gotham’s underworld who were too afraid to strike out at her when she was under the Joker’s protection.
The most dangerous of those threats is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), the aforementioned “20s gangster with a penchant for appropriative masks.” Roman has a laundry list of reasons he’d like to see Harley dead, but, luckily for her, he’s a bit too preoccupied with his search for a diamond that contains the numbers to an offshore bank account that could solidify his criminal empire to focus too much attention on her. The quest for the diamond puts Roman at odds with a number of other ladies of Gotham: Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), lounge singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), crossbow assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and underage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Bonded by their common enemy, they all must form an uneasy alliance in order to survive Roman and his goons.
While Harley is clearly the protagonist of the film (she even serves as the narrator), director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson do a great job spotlighting the ensemble cast. Jurnee Smollett-Bell gives a stand out performance as Black Canary, who is working for Roman but desperately looking for a way out. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is hilariously deadpan as Huntress, who is a bad ass killer inept at self-promotion. There’s a wonderful running joke about Rosie Perez’s Detective Montoya being forced to borrow other people’s clothes. Ella Jay Basco gives the film heart. And McGregor somehow manages to play Roman completely unhinged while making the character just grounded enough to feel terrifying instead of cartoonish.
You could see any of these memorable characters spinning off into their own standalone films, which is good news for DC’s beleaguered cinematic universe. Though I’d be particularly excited to see more from Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary, who was truly captivating. Smollett-Bell infuses the character with so much personality and complexity that it feels like the film barely scratched the surface of what she’s capable of.
There are great action scenes throughout the film. Yan and Hodson serve up some delicious set pieces for our heroes to battle in. There’s a showdown inside a police station that has sprinklers being set off and cops being shot with a confetti cannon, Harley in roller skates chases down cars filled with gangsters trying to kill her and there’s an all-out brawl at an abandoned amusement park. The fight sequences are acrobatic, flashy and delightful. The film is vibrant and fun in a way that comic books are, but comic book movies often forget to be.
The soundtrack also helps to propel the film forward. There are a few well-worn classics like “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes, “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” by James Brown and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar, but there are also some fresh needle drops like “Blood in the Cut” by K. Flay, “Joke’s On You” by Charlotte Lawrence and “Boss Bitch” by Doja Cat.
The film’s one hour and 49 minute run time flies by. It’s a breezy, fun adventure that knows the characters, world and tone it’s going for and nails all three. It’s a film I know I’ll be revisiting many times. Even if the dance number was far too short.
Written by Joel Murphy. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact Joel firstname.lastname@example.org