Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Directed by Cathy Yan Publishing House: Warner Bros. Released: 02.07.20 Review by | February 6, 2020 at 5:30 PM
8
by Dal Al-Mohamed

Basically: Free from the Joker’s protection, Harley Quinn has to find her own way, especially now that everyone she ever wronged has decided to settle their grievances with her.

To start, this film is less about the Birds of Prey and more about The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. So, for BoP fans, know that walking in and reorganize your expectations. As a Harley Quinn film, this is a wonderful addition to DC’s collection of movies and I’d argue comparable to Wonder Woman in how it handles its women characters—they are strong, with clear values, and not afraid to take action. But make no mistake Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is the focus, so expect some illogic, a devil-may-care attitude and a few poor choices but with a lot of heart underneath. 

Joker and Harley have broken up, again. Only this time she says it is for good. More than just a woman leaving a toxic relationship in a cartoon-y superhero/supervillain world, we are actually given glimpses of the emotional conflict to show what that actually MEANS. This film doesn’t shy away from pointing out the unhealthiness of their relationship: the fear of telling people “I’m done with Mister J,” your own loss of identity when you’re no longer part of a couple, the question of where you want to go and who do you want to be afterwards + the, typical of Harley Quinn, self-destructive responses to those questions. Yes, it is clear that she isn’t necessarily the nicest person but we can’t help but root for Harley Quinn as she tries to work her way out from her legacy as “the Joker’s girlfriend.”

Photo © 2019 - Warner Bros. Pictures

When it is clear that Harley isn’t going back to her l’amour. The film moves into an action comedy with “open season” on Harley Quinn and a plethora of baddies out to get their revenge; the vast majority of which are nameless, faceless, men in black leather and jeans who she takes on in frenetic, acrobatic, fight scenes reminiscent of a Jackie Chan thriller. Add in a quest for a mysterious diamond and a power-hungry unpredictable Black Mask and you have all the parts to make for an enjoyable movie.

Margot Robbie was an iconic Harley in Suicide Squad. It was clear that the actress really identified with the character. Audiences recognized that and audiences loved it. In BoP: ATFEOHQ, Robbie takes the role to another level, embracing the “brokenness” of the character while also highlighting the playfulness and heart
of the original Paul Dini and Bruce Timm Harley Quinn from
Batman: The Animated Series

Where most superhero films devolve into clever clips with a sprinkling of violence, Christina Hodson’s script veers away from that allowing us to see a Harley Quinn exploring her identity, having some rather destructive (and painful for others) fun, and growing as a character; and that includes making mistakes. 

As an example (Quote available on IMDb): 

“Do you know what a harlequin is? A harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master. No one gives two shits who we are, beyond that.”

Photo © 2019 - Warner Bros. Pictures

Hodson has written the superhero action flick we expected with the added depth of character development, humor, and some inventive violence. The pacing of the storyline increases into the third act where we are thrown from scene to scene in a kind of wonderful frenetic carnival ride. 

There are a couple of quibbles that I have with the script regarding character motivations and a few of our villain’s decisions that just didn’t make sense. There is one scene with highly sexualized violence that, as a woman, made me distinctly uncomfortable. It is one more instance of sexualized violence being done to a woman for no real reason, as this particular scene added NOTHING to the story. I WILL be angry about it for a long time. It was a poor decision to keep it in as it could have been excluded without detracting from the film. I don’t need to say any more. When you watch the film, you’ll KNOW the scene I’m referring to.

So, let’s talk about directing. I am now a huge fan of Cathy Yan’s directing. Working with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, she has created beautiful images for BoP. I know that camera angles and choice of shots, direction etc. aren’t really what people go to a superhero film for, but I want to ask you to pay attention to what Yan has done. The shots are beautiful and shift seamlessly; close to give us intimate personal moments that share Harley Quinn’s deepest fears, to broad action shots from multiple angles—where we get every nuance of a fight scene. That. Is. Not. Easy. And she did it really well. I will be looking for more of her films in the future and I’ll say it here and now, she will be winning awards for her work, if not now,
then soon.

Photo © 2019 - Warner Bros. Pictures

Cons. I have one major con with regard to the directing and writing and how they come together and that is the tone of the film. Parts of BoP have a wonderful energy reminiscent of Batman: The Animated Series. It is a bit cartoony and fun and light and humorous. And then there are other parts with hyper-violence. The problem is that in this film they aren’t quite meshed well. As an audience we’re swung from one extreme to the other, from humor to horror, rather than the melding of the two. Granted, only one other comic book film comes to mind that has done this successfully and that is Deadpool. And anyone who has seen or read Deadpool can see the vast differences between it and this version of BoP.

Regarding the other actresses (because this is STILL titled Birds of Prey), I really enjoyed Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary. I’d like to have seen more of the character as we don’t get a full picture of her, her motivations, or her goals. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a great Huntress. I had never really thought about what having 15 years of your life committed to nothing but revenge would do to a child’s psyche, but we get to see that, turning the usual vengeful assassin trope into something more and Winstead plays it perfectly. She isn’t given much dialogue but her timing and delivery are spot on. What I was most surprised by was Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya. I did not expect to love the character as much as I did. This is not the Renee Montoya of the comics. This is an older detective who has been passed over because she wasn’t willing to “play the game,” someone who drinks too much, and wants justice too much for her own good. Basically the stereotype of every broken-down cop/detective in an 80’s movie, and Perez played it fantastically. Someone leaving the theater said they had wanted a younger Montoya. I would rather argue that having a diversity of women, in race, character, and age is what will make films better, including this one. With its emphasis from script, to production, to the actresses own statements, to do less is to do BoP a disservice as a whole.

Photo © 2019 - Warner Bros. Pictures

Ewan McGregor was a delightfully chaotic Roman Sionis, although I think his character was flattened a bit too much to be interesting (not McGregor’s fault, there just wasn’t enough THERE for him). But what was beautifully acted is Chris Messina as Victor Zsasz and his understated love for Sionis. The gently underplayed homoerotic energy between Zsasz and Sionis was wonderfully done by these two actors and added an additional layer of depth to what would otherwise be cardboard cutout villains.

I have one huge unhappiness with the film. While the fight choreography was great, in the final battle it isn’t captured cleanly. We’re given scattershot views of our BoP battling against a multitude of nameless faceless baddies and it just doesn’t give the emotional punch, especially after a fight scene in a police station earlier in the film which was *chefs kiss* downright beautiful. 

Clearly, I loved Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn and just as clearly, I can see flaws in the final product. 

In the End: If you’re a fan of superhero films, this is a must see. If you’re a fan of badass women in films, this is a must see. If you’re a fan of action films with real character development, this is a must see. If you’re a fan of Harley Quinn, this is a must see. If you want to see Birds of Prey, see this, and then shout loud to DC for a sequel, because all the pieces are there.

P.S. Hey DC, in the next ACTUAL “Birds of Prey” movie include Oracle (the original founder of BoP) and, just my recommendation, have Teal Sherer for the role.