When Warner Brothers and DC announced that Harley Quinn would be getting a solo movie, I was not at all interested. When the trailers started to drop, I was slightly puzzled but curious. The trailers were oddly quirky and seemed to emphasize a lighter tone. When the movie came out, it did not do well in the theaters despite positive reception from critics as well as audiences who did see it. Frankly the film was oddly marketed and I don’t think Warner Brothers knew what they had on their hands. And coming off the heels of the poorly received Suicide Squad, a spin-off already had the odds stacked against it. Having a long confusing name such as Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) — yes, that is the full title — certainly added to head scratches of not just movie goers but even comic fans.
With that out of the way I have to admit that Birds of Prey is the most fun I’ve ever had watching a DC film. even more than Shazam. Now bare with me a minute as I must quantify that Birds of Prey is not for everyone nor is it a typical comic book film. It is, however, funny, quirky, self aware, and full of original action sequences that are heavily influenced by Hong Kong cinema, and especially Jackie Chan films. And all this is done without an over reliance on computer animation.
It is not necessary to watch Suicide Squad to see Birds of Prey. After a brief animated (Harley did originate as an original character for Batman the Animated Series afterall) montage on the origins of Harley Quinn and how she ended up with Joker, we are told that she finally dumped him. Well, that’s her version anyway. The rest of Gotham’s underworld, however, does not know that Harley has changed her status from it’s complicated to single. She had been given big leeway because of her relationship with Joker. Too bad she gets drunk and spills the beans at a nightclub owned by narcissistic Roman Sionis. Sionis also happens to be a face-cutting-off bad guy known as Black Mask. And it turns out he is also after a valuable diamond not for the worth of the diamond but because there is a code written on the diamond that will unlock the vast fortunes of a slaughtered crime family.
There is a lot to digest in a movie that is less than two hours long here. Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. There is a kid named Cassandra Cain who is a petty pickpocket living in foster care. Living in the same low rent building as Cassandra is Dinah, a singer at Roman’s club and new driver. There is a crossbow killer hunting down criminals in Gotham. There is a cop on the case against Roman (a pillar of the community) that comes right out of an 80s cop movie (really, Harley even tells us this). Cassandra Cain has stolen the diamond from one of Roman’s henchmen without knowing it is more than a diamond. Now she and the diamond become the McGuffin of the movie. Somehow, this all comes together in a wild mixture of comedy and action. And honestly, this movie could have worked if it was actually stretched out maybe fifteen or twenty minutes. I know that sounds unusual for a comic book film but this could have used some extra time for the story and characters to gel.
Despite the ensemble nature of the story, it is without a doubt a Harley Quinn movie. And by extension it is Margo Robbie’s movie. Robbie steps up to the plate, metal bat n hand, and swings mightily for the fences in this vehicle. She clearly shines in this and holds everything together. Ewan McGregor chews up the scenery like as one of the most flamboyant of DC movie villains who doesn’t wear clown makeup.
Backing up Robbie is a cast that includes Rosie Perez as Montoya, a by the gut anti-authority cliched cop. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Huntress, a character with some major revenge issues and is also quite socially awkward. Ella Jay Basco plays Cassandra Cain, who happens to be a Bat Girl in the comics, as a streetwise, slightly foul mouthed, orphan at the center of attention from the bad guys. She has the diamond, but well, she swallowed it which means there are pretty much only a couple of ways to get it.
The ensemble doesn’t really come together until the last act where in opposition to an Avengers like assembly where they team up to save the world, they are joining forces to not get killed. It is that last act that the movie realizes its potential. The action set includes an ensemble fight in the funhouse of an abandoned amusement park that packs a creative set pieces similar to some of Jackie Chan’s films such as City Hunter. There are some fun stunts along the way, including Harley being pulled by a car while wearing roller skates. These action pieces are also evidently done with little to no reliance on computer effects as well. The action direction is uncredited to the director of the John Wick films and are just fun to watch as they are in some ways outrageous. Also of note on the action, like Hong Kong films of yore, it is not filled with quick cuts and shaky camera movement but is filmed so that audiences can actually see the fights.
Cathy Yan handles her directing duties really well considering that this is her first big budget film. She is without a doubt influenced by Asian cinema as can be seen in her action scenes and her sense of comedy. Now this may not sit well with Western audiences, but a lot of Asian Americans will get some of her jokes. The script is by Christina Hodson, who has worked on the critically acclaimed Black Mirror series and is also in on the joke apparently, being half Taiwanese herself. Yes, I am celebrating the fact that along with the inclusion of Ella Jay Basco, Asian representation is strong without pandering.
I was genuinely not interested all that much in this film other than maybe checking it out as a matinee. But after the guys over at the Nerds of Color podcast kept heaping praise on this film I was planning to check it out. But now that practically all movie theaters are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Warner released Birds of Prey as an early purchase digitally for immediate streaming. That is how I watched it and I have no regrets.
Birds of Prey is definitely not a typical comic book movie. Some may even call it a femme Deadpool lite. But that would be an oversimplification. It certainly does not follow a cookie cutter formula for the genre. It is, however, a fun film that knows not to take itself too seriously and is also self aware of the movie it is. It may not be for everyone, but I think it has the makings of a cult hit that will be more well received as time and people give it a chance.