Margot Robbie reprises her iconic Suicide Squad role in this DC Extended Universe actioner. Written and directed by women (Christina Hodson and Cathy Yan respectively), Birds of Prey sees female characters joining forces against a Gotham City crime lord.
After parting ways with The Joker, Harley Quinn (Robbie) teams up with Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, TV's Underground), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) and Renee Montoya (Oscar nominee Rosie Perez, Fearless) to rescue a little girl (Ella Jay Basco in her feature debut) from Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
What a long and peculiar name. Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) as a film, is just as bizarre. Like dipping a piece of chocolate in orange juice, the overall flavour is distinctive, but it isn't the most enjoyable.
DC has come a long way with its DCEU properties since the dreaded days of Batman vs Superman and Justice League and has worked best when it limited its films to a single topic and allowed the more fantastical elements of the comic book universe to come to life. Shazam! and Wonder Woman were refreshing as the connections to the rest of the DCEU were vastly limited to references and easter eggs, and not actually using the screentime to set-up plots for future movies. Birds of Prey is another example of a largely standalone film, full of whimsical elements, but it falls short of being something great. It actually struggles to be average.
Helmed by some new talent in the industry, it is written by Christina Hodson, and directed by Cathy Yan. Birds of Prey is only Yan's second feature film, and Hodson has only been writing feature films since 2016, most notably writing for the Transformers spin-off, Bumblebee. While it is exciting to see some more non-male representation in films, the lack of experience is noticeable as the Birds of Prey has a tendency to copy other styles, rather than create its own. It will likely be difficult to find a review that doesn't compare this film to that of Tim Millers's 'merc-with-a-mouth', Deadpool (or closer yet, David Leitch's Deadpool 2, with Cassandra Cain having a similar role to that of Rusty Collins), with the same style of meta-humour, over-use of narration, and glorification of violence. Beyond that, the film also carries the same energy, non-linear narrative with visually creative tangents, that is reminiscent of those late 90's films from Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie (specifically that of Trainspotting, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels).
Starting off the film with an extensive animated opening scene overlayed with exposition, the audience is fed the entire history of Harley Quinn before the film starts. When the only necessary information from that was that she was in a toxic relationship and they broke up, spending several minutes of recapping Suicide Squad seems unnecessary. But that is how all exposition is provided to the audience; through narration, going against the rule of "show don't tell". Narration, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, but when it is used as a substitute for strong scriptwriting and character development, that is when it takes on a negative element.
The character development in Birds of Prey is lacking substantially. There is only one thematic arc throughout the entire film, and the characters are forced to comply with that theme, rather than giving the characters any real strong choices in the film. It gives the characters a passive status that makes them far less interesting to watch. Black Canary, Cassandra Cain, and even Harley Quinn are all simply along for the ride. Pushed along by external forces of the male antagonist Black Mask, and even the Joker's lack of presence having a larger effect than any decisions the female protagonists make. Any sense of conflict was resolved within a scene or two. It provides little to no stakes, which combined with weak character development means there is little reason to care about the characters in the film.
For the most part, the casting was great. Margot Robbie is still an absolute queen as the unstable Harley Quinn, Jurnee Smollett-Bell is a powerful looking Black Canary, and Ewan MacGregor makes a for an outright flamboyantly quizzical Black Mask. The two characters that did not fit in were Mary Elizabeth Winstead's Huntress and Rosie Perez's Detective Montoya. Both from a visual perspective and through their role in the story, they feel so out-of-place and simply added on. Huntress' arc is practically its own story independent of Quinn's arc. and Montoya has no necessary function at all. It's to say that Birds of Prey spread itself too thin, trying to introduce the Birds of Prey team, and also cover Harley Quinn's emancipation, but didn't have the time to do both stories justice.
With little worth writing home about, in terms of the narrative, the standout component of the film is the visuals. With a plethora of costume changes and vivid environments, Birds of Prey is, for the most part, very engaging for the eyes. The cinematography is pretty reasonable from Matthew Libatique (best known for his work on such classics as Phone Booth, Inside Man, Iron Man, Black Swan, Mother!, and Venom) with an almost schizophrenic nature to the camera style, switching between wide-angle steady-cam shots and the closer epileptic shaky-cam that creates a frenetic sequence that is somewhat difficult to follow. The choreography was well executed with a great variety of actions, movements, weapons, and combinations to keep things interesting.
While Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) does have the nice message that you don't need a man to protect you when you have a strong support network, the way in which it puts forward that message, is almost contradictory. With too much unnecessary exposition and narration, weak character development, and no big threats, Birds of Prey was 109 minutes of "nothing special". This should have been split into two films, the emancipation of Harley Quinn could have been a strong dramatic feat, considering the overwhelming popularity of Joker. The action was well-executed but held back by the lack of depth in its characters.
On the upside, Bruce the Hyena is brilliant, and I wish I saw more of him!
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