REVIEW: Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn [2020]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 109 minutes | Release Date: February 7th, 2020 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Cathy Yan
Writer(s): Christina Hodson

“Paying is for dummies”

It still surprises me that the so-called DC Extended Universe has a pulse after what’s transpired. Warner Bros. hasn’t helped matters with their muddying of the waters thanks to a standalone Joker film (alongside Jared Leto‘s unceremonious dumping), a newly announced Batman movie (sans Ben Affleck with some ambiguity as far as whether or not it fits under the umbrella), and the release of Superman himself now that Henry Cavill is no longer under contract. The Flash still hasn’t been made (although Ezra Miller is popping up as the character in unlikely places) and Suicide Squad has already been completely retooled under James Gunn‘s watchful eye. You’d be forgiven if you forgot Aquaman, Shazam!, and Wonder Woman count since their success is in part due to their independence.

Through the turmoil, critical backlash, and whatever #ReleasetheSnyderCut hopes to achieve (beyond its commendable charity), however, lies Margot Robbie and her refusal to give up on her character, Harley Quinn. She’s been fighting for a “girl gang” spin-off wherein she could team-up for hijinks and comedic action instead of the dour melodrama that loomed above her big screen debut in Suicide Squad. I’m talking pro-actively fighting too as she joined in a producing capacity to get a woman writer (Christina Hodson) and director (Cathy Yan) on-board to provide purpose beyond sex appeal. It just goes to show you that these huge tent-pole extravaganzas don’t have to always be cookie-cutter failed attempts to match Christopher Nolan‘s dark vision of fifteen years ago. DC can still have fun.

There’s no better word to describe Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn than that: fun. Just look at its mouthful of a subtitle to understand the irreverent tone being embraced from the top down. Add the inspired decision to let Robbie’s Harley narrate the film and you can never tell exactly where things might go. She barely knows herself, constantly freeze-framing and rewinding to add insane context to an already insane turn of events. It’s never confusing, though. In fact, Hodson and Yan have ensured the plot remains airtight by using the constant starts and stops as set-ups and punch lines. Everything is meticulous planned for maximum impact and every single actor is game whether badass women, over-the-top villains, or self-mockingly chauvinistic men.

The latter are key because the title’s “emancipation” goes further than merely getting Harley out from Joker’s shadow. This is about escaping patriarchal rule on the whole—a difficult feat in a city like Gotham with egomaniacal men running loose on both sides of the law. It’ll therefore take more than an explosive relationship status update to excise Quinn from this cycle of systemic oppression. If anything, that display simply reveals how embedded she truly is with every man she ever wronged standing in line to take off her head as though they now own her. Club owner and torturous gangster Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) is at the head if for no other reason than wanting revenge for not being allowed to kill her before.

She isn’t alone, though. Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) has seen her entire career diminished by men who’ve stolen credit for her hard work. Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is stuck beneath Roman’s thumb as a lounge singer who owes him for giving her a paycheck even if she’s not entirely comfortable with how that money was earned on his end. The enigmatic “Crossbow Killer” (Mary Elizabeth Winstead‘s Huntress) is out for the blood of petty men who left her an orphan. And young Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) is left fending for herself as a pickpocket so she doesn’t have to endure the abuse of a foster parent already beating his wife. These strong women are ready to extinguish the oppression they refuse to let rule them anymore.

The catalyst is a jewel known as the Bertinelli diamond. After a series of events that I’ll let Harley explain in her uniquely manic and convoluted way, Cain ends up in possession of the prize while it was en route to Roman. He being a man who employs a sycophant that enjoys peeling faces off those who wrong them (Chris Messina‘s Zsasz), no reward is too high to get it back. Some of the aforementioned women are intentionally working together to stop him. Some are unintentionally trying to save the girl. All are caught in a web of serendipitous overlap to discover the targets of their ire are practically the same and the beefs they have with each other of much less consequence. Their unlikely team-up can commence.

Throw in a pet hyena, some dark humor, and a ton of action set to a stellar soundtrack of needle drops and it’s nearly impossible not to have a blast. McGregor and Messina chew the scenery whole in the best way possible, but Hodson and Yan never give them enough to risk them stealing the spotlight. That’s Harley’s through and through with Montoya coming a close second being that she exists in a different world from the other women and needs a bit more exposition to expose her road to the inevitable meet-up. Cain is a fantastic side character doubling as the de facto object of everyone’s attention due to the gem and Lance/Huntress bring much needed stability and mystery respectively to keep things as moving briskly.

It’s that pace that maintains our attention throughout because there are never any dull moments for minds to wander. Dialogue-heavy scenes are always marked by an increase in comedy thanks to McGregor’s plastic smile and self-centered ambivalence or Basco and Winstead’s eccentric personalities providing unforgettable one-liners whether intentionally (Cain) or unintentionally (Huntress). Robbie remains a wild card able to turn from rage to delight on a dime, so her interactions with the more stoic and severe Perez and Smollett-Bell are forever unpredictable. It helps that Harley and luck go hand-in-hand, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a treat when she does exactly what she’s planned (like ambush a police station with a sandbag gun full of glitter rounds). Either way a crazy stunt is likely upon the horizon.

Because the ample action that results isn’t the main impetus, however, Birds of Prey doesn’t fall into the trap of needing a computer-generated boss battle a la DC’s recent spate. That this is probably a direct effect of not having the same monstrous budget as those possessed to create such climactic videogame insanity simultaneously shows how less is more and how the studio itself still embraces the notion that women-centric and women-led films are a bigger risk than those propelled by men. The jokes on them, though, since this is by far the most entertaining entry to the Extended Universe yet. By letting the action and comedy become augmentation for its underlying crime caper, it proves more character-driven romp a la Snatch than just another ploddingly edgelord blockbuster.


photography:
[1] © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Claudette Barius Caption: (L-r) MARGOT ROBBIE as Harley Quinn and ELLA JAY BASCO as Cassandra Cain in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN),” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[2] © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Photo by Claudette Barius/ & © DC Comics Caption: (L-r) JURNEE SMOLLETT-BELL as Black Canary and MARGOT ROBBIE as Harley Quinn in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN),” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[3] © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Photo by Claudette Barius/ & © DC Comics Caption: (L-r) EWAN McGREGOR as Roman Sionis, JURNEE SMOLLETT-BELL as Black Canary and CHRIS MESSINA as Victor Zsasz in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN),” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[4] © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: No Data Caption: (L-r) MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD as Huntress and ROSIE PEREZ as Renee Montoya in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN),” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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