BIRDS OF PREY (dir. Cathy Yan): Film review

Today I wore Batman socks to work, and I have Birds of Prey to blame for such revelry. What is it about the world of Batman that enchants me so? Well, there are a lot of things, and frankly, Batman himself is toward the bottom of the list. For me, it’s the powerful combination of both Gotham City and the best rogues gallery in the annals of comic book villainy that keep me coming back to this universe again and again. Heck, Batman Returns remains the best Batman movie I’ve ever seen, and in it, the Caped Crusader could charitably be described as a supporting role.

Enter Birds of Prey, the latest tale of the denizens of Gotham, that forever unstuck-from-time civic center with a terminal crime problem. Batman does not make an appearance, nor does he even get a mention (there is, however, a “domesticated” hyena named Bruce), but this isn’t a Dark Knight story. Nope, this entry in the increasingly disconnected (and, IMO, mostly awesome) DC Extended Cinematic Universe is all about Harley Quinn as she recovers from a breakup with her boyfriend, the infamous Joker, who is thankfully not featured here. I think this is because Jared Leto is on an island somewhere starting a cult. I digress.

Relatively speaking, Ms. Quinn is a newer entry into the Batman rogues gallery, having first been created for Batman: The Animated Series. The character was such a hit with viewers that she soon found herself in the pages of comics. Then, in 2016, she made it to the big screen with Suicide Squad. The character’s film debut left many an audience member torn. Margot Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn was immediately iconic, and her performance had such verve that it made the movie around her feel tepid in comparison (and really, what is Captain Boomerang’s superpower outside of the fact that boomerangs work for him the same way as they do for a lot of people?). Naturally, as the DCEU is a perpetual work in progress, at least on a macro level, the titular Squad headed to reboot territory while Robbie’s Quinn was set up for her very own solo adventure.

This adventure comes in the form of the deliriously titled Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. After a split from her criminal mastermind boyfriend, Harley Quinn is at a loss. Without a man to stand behind, what’s a sadistic anarchist to do? Well, in the case of Quinn, she takes the route of doing shots and engaging in cutesy pre-violence banter with anyone that stands in her way. Unfortunately for her, not having the Joker by her side means that she lacks the social clout that formerly granted her protection from any of a litany of dangerous people with grievances toward her. And if you know how she operates, that’s pretty much everybody.

Fortunately for her, she’s just as able as her former beau when it comes to gleeful destruction.

Her path towards a twisted version of self-love puts her in cahoots with Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a pickpocket who may be in possession of a valuable MacGuffin — a MacGuffin being sought by a lunatic crime boss named Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, having an infectious blast). Meanwhile, hotheaded detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is hunting a mysterious assassin (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), while a nightclub singer with some surprising abilities (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) finds herself involved with eeeeeeeverything.

It’s a lot of plot, but the structure of the film makes it all pretty easy to swallow. Since the story is being narrated by Harley Quinn, the plot jumps around on an as-needed basis. Sure, this can be a bit of a narrative cheat, layering simultaneous events with a flashy style to mask the fact that there’s not a larger, cohesive story being told, but it makes sense given that our narrator is completely insane. While it can feel a bit unwieldy as it bounces around willy nilly, the film remains so effortlessly entertaining that it’s easy to dismiss such things. And ultimately, the film comes out ahead of itself in that regard. It’s not ever hard to follow, it’s just tough to know what deserves rapt attention until after the fact (pro-tip: meet this one at its own terms).

Executive produced by Robbie, with direction from Cathy Yan, and a script by Christina Hodson, Birds of Prey delivers on the feminist superhero movie that Captain Marvel fell flat on its face trying to be. While I will never subscribe to the more aggressive identity demands that impossibly require all storytellers to match every demographic they depict, there’s something to be said about the identarian aspect of a largely female filmmaking team. Interactions amidst our unlikely group of crime fighters/criminals feel genuine, natural. This humanity comes from experience, and I do believe that there is experiential influence here. This also helps drive the empowerment themes home in a way that doesn’t feel didactic. Birds of Prey is ultimately a film about self-love and self-identity, and the notion that one not be defined by their romantic aspirations. Clever, too, that this film includes Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), a Gotham City baddie whose weakness has always been subservience to a bigger baddie, as one of Quinn’s foes.

Another area where the female lens comes through is in the way that fisticuffs are shot. When Harley Quinn throws down with her enemies, the filmmakers have a keen eye toward female physicality. Rather than choreographing the fight sequences irrespective of gender, this film embraces the female form. Instead of a Cameron-esque style where the fighting has a masculine sensibility, Yan and her stunt team employ a tactical fluidity that suits the both the body types and personalities of the combatants. It’s awesome to see and it feels fresh. For another example of such a thing one need look no further than Wonder Woman from just a few years ago. The fighting has a similar intuition.

The stunt work goes beyond fistfights as well. While some of the set-pieces make a promise that can’t be kept, most work brilliantly. Even when the sequences don’t clear the bar, they remain compelling, exciting, and easy to follow without being bland. One segment involving a motorcycle, a mallet, and a pair of roller skates has taken up real estate in my mind since the film ended. It kicks ass.

I’m gushing a bit, but there are some shortcomings that come in the form of what feel like studio notes. An imagined musical number was obviously cut into a distracting montage by the powers that be, likely in the interest of preserving a run-time, but it’s a bad choice that feels sloppy. A handful of editing snafus indicate further cuts (one character is thrown clean through a second story window, but finds herself back in the same room, unhurt, within seconds). One plot line, in which Montoya is hot on the heels of her mysterious assassin, fizzles before it can take root, and it feels as if it may have been pared down as well. One hopes that all of this makes it to the bonus features. Especially the dance number.

Like Hugh Jackman did with Wolverine; Like Sam Jackson did with Nick Fury; Margot Robbie is now synonymous with Harley Quinn. She is the definitive version, and I look forward to seeing more tales told in her world. And if Gotham can hold onto its current colorful design for a few more movies (populated with more deep cuts from Batman’s supporting cast), I just might have to get more celebratory Batman socks.

Now we just have to sit tight and see if, like Joker, film “journalists” decide that this movie will inspire scorned young women everywhere to commit acts of violence. It won’t, but I never underestimate the stupid extremes that an uninteresting person behind a keyboard can conjure.

Opens in Philadelphia and nationwide February 7, 2020.

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