Movie Review - Birds of Prey
I hate to start yet another review this way but when I first heard about Birds of Prey, I knew I was gonna hate it. I despise Harley Quinn. I don’t like Rosie Perez. It reeked too much of “grrrrl power” where I was worried that DC had finally gone the Marvel Studios route in making film where anyone with testicles had an IQ of 0. The subtitle, which I refuse to type, reminded me of how much I HATE HARLEY QUINN…mainly due to overexposure…as the case I expected to be here. And don’t get me wrong, even though it’s called Birds of Prey and yadda yadda yadda…make no mistake, this IS Harley Quinn: The Movie.
And yet, even after a second watching: I like it.
No, it’s not perfect, as we’ll get into, but it is indeed a solid entry into the DCEU and also a pretty good follow-up to David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. So, before we get into that, let’s talk synopsis:
Harley and the Joker are DONE. And while that may be cathartic, it also paints a huge target on Harley’s back! Everyone she’s ever ticked off, including one very pissed off Gotham mob boss in the form of Roman Sionis (aka The Black Mask) coming out of the woodwork, to see if they can settle the score. As fate and a breakfast sandwich would have it, she stumbles into a series of events that not only allow her to move past her Puddin’ but also turns her from prey to hunter. Look out world, here come Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey!
My distaste for the character aside, Margot Robbie is absolutely perfect in the role and in some ways proves to be a bit of a balm for that distaste. I’d dare say that’s a testament to her performance but also it shows a wisdom on the part of the screenwriters to insert strong side characters that can carry the load when we get the occasional well-deserved break from her. While Mary Elizabeth Winstead gets the next highest billing, she’s not really in the film a whole lot. Sure, she proves crucial to the proceedings and her turn as the Huntress adds a bit of quirkiness that’s not present in other adaptations of the character, but it’s a shame that sometimes she’s treated as a bit of an afterthought. Jurnee Smollett-Bell proves a capable Black Canary and probably ends up being the character I ended up liking the most in the film, in some ways proving to be the reluctant hero in a movie full of villains and anti-heroes. And I’ll admit, I owe Rosie Perez an apology. I keep assessing her career through the lens of her performance in White Men Can’t Jump and that’s just not fair. The instant she takes the screen as Renee Montoya, she commands the role easily. You have no problem buying her as a smart, tough as nails detective that’s been shit on throughout her entire career yet still does her damnedest to serve the people of Gotham. Should more Birds films come, I’m not sure I can get behind her as Montoya’s final alter ego, The Question, but if this film has proven anything, I do need to make sure I give her a fair shot at it.
Solidly in the ‘maybe’ column here is Ewan McGregor’s performance as The Black Mask…and I’m not sure if I should blame him or the way the character is written. While he plays the homosexual gangster fairly well, with equal parts flare and ferocity, there’s something about his neediness to be the center of attention that, while I get the psychological motivation for, it just doesn’t feel like it vibes well with the source material.
I do have two solid negatives though: Chris Messina’s Zsasz and Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain…both perhaps too far removed from their characters’ origins. Zsasz here isn’t the knife-wielding, tally-scarred serial killer of the comics. He does retain his scars as well as his fondness for the knife, but as the partner/second-in-command to Black Mask, the role is a bit of a miss with his appearances proving to be painful at times. Something similar can be said of Cain, who in this film is little more than a skilled pick-pocket, not the assassin in training of the comics. Sure, by the end of the film, it seems like she’s set on that path as a protégé of Harley, but the comics gave us a mute, spectre-like soon to be Batgirl that seems to be the antithesis of the smart-mouthed street thief in the film.
The writing of the film succeeds in two separate things, each one important to winning me over. First off, yes, just like in the comics, the DCEU is trying really hard to make Harley the Deadpool of this cinematic universe. Thankfully, Robbie nor the writers try to do it too much like Ryan Reynolds did with Marvel’s anti-hero, but it echoes that earlier effort in a way that seems different yet complimentary: the fourth wall gets broken, but mostly in a narrative sense, not in a wink-wink to the audience sense. A mix of live action and animation help further this along making it unique and as such again serves as a bit of a buffer for when Harley gets to be a bit too Harley for my liking. Secondly, the film deftly avoids the ‘grrrrl power’ trap. Yes, if you’re paying attention, by the end of the film it’s very much a women vs. men showdown but the film makes a conscious effort to show you how we got there. Every mob boss in Gotham has underestimated Harley. No one gave a second thought to a little girl’s burning revenge eventually leading to a Crossbow Killer. The boys in blue thought it well within their rights to take credit for the collars of a devoted policewoman, especially to further their own careers. And lastly a quiet little bird in the corner keeping her head down and taking on the tasks forced on her ends up having the loudest voice of all. These women are damaged yet capable…but the one thing they are never, and thus placing this film head and shoulders above such films as Captain Marvel or the 2016 Ghostbusters, is cocky. The audience decides these women are better than the men of the film, not the characters’ gender.
Lastly, let’s talk about the production design of the film. This is where Birds of Prey feels like such a great follow-up to Ayer’s Suicide Squad…first and foremost because of all the ink many of the characters are sporting. And while Joker (granted an unrelated entry in DC Films) painted Gotham as a mid to late 70s New York, where urban decay was taking root, then this Gotham is akin to early 80s New York, decay has set in, yet life continues. Perhaps the best display of this are all the scenes that take place in the daylight. One of the overused techniques to display how much of a shithole (Aquaman’s words, not mine!) Gotham is has been to show it only at night…and to be blunt, that’s gotten rather tiresome. So much so that it does indeed factor into my distinct lack of enthusiasm for seeing the most recent Batman film. Seeing that there’s some semblance of normal life in Gotham in the daylight as well as the opportunity for some criminal hijinks makes the setting seem that much more alive…and frankly, it’d be great to see other directors follow this lead.
The best way to understand the film is through a brief selection from the soundtrack: It’s a Man’s World, performed originally by James Brown but sung by Black Canary in the film during her stint as a singer at Sionis’s club. One could be forgiven for suspecting that the entire narrative might be constructed around the message of the song: it might be a man’s world, but it’s nothing without women. And as this film shows, push those women too far, and you damn well better believe they’ll push back. That’s a huge success in a Hollywood that seems to be more focused on a tone-deaf and simplistic message instead of marching into the gray and recognizing that the situation is more complicated than that. The fact that the film only needs a little more than 100 minutes to get that job done, and done well, is just another feather in its cap. So, in spite of my initial hesitance, I can certainly recommend Harley Quinn: The Movie. Just…next time WB, don’t bullshit us, tell us any sequels to Birds of Prey is going to be what it’s going to be: Harley Quinn 2. That aside, this film earns our Happy Cat rating, and one must imagine that Ms. Quinzel would be pleased with that.