• Mon. Oct 2nd, 2023

Birds of Prey

ByBruno Savill de Jong

Feb 21, 2020

Birds of Prey opens with Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) break-up with the Joker. Freed from its connections to Suicide Squad (2016), the film is able to embark upon its own bold direction: a very loose adaptation of its comic book counterparts (a female crimefighting team founded by Barbara Gordon/Batgirl). Such emancipation is a vital theme with female leads fighting for independence that contends with the typically male selfishness that imprisons them. 

On a journey of self discovery, Harley must discover her identity apart from the Joker. A characteristic of this is her new found vulnerability. Emotionally, yes, but mainly tactically, her separation with “Mistah J” also dissolving her immunity. To settle her scores, Quinn plans to deliver young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Blasco) to the entitled and sadistic “Black Mask” Roman Sionis (a gloriously camp Ewan McGregor), while being chased by Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). Alongside the cop and criminals is Sionis’ new “driver” who mostly aims to keep her head down despite the jealous rivalry of Sionis’ main henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). If that wasn’t enough, a “crossbow killer” (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is stalking the proceedings, seeking freedom from a personal vendetta.

If the plot sounds slightly cramped, that’s because it is. The “Birds” have an impressive range but are spread out a little too thin. While the film acknowledges its tangled narratives, the frequent doubling-back and perspective-shifting feels a little messy. Such under-baked relationships strip the final act of any impact and instead drag out the film. The central relationship between Cain and Quinn particularly could have used more time to develop.

However, this criticism only exists because what we do get is fantastic; the cast work well with what they have. Harley Quinn’s irreverent self-awareness invites comparisons to Deadpool, but Birds of Prey is ultimately more solid and sincere, while retaining its comedy. Indeed, there are moments of genuine emotion (as when Quinn drunkenly confesses her loneliness) in an otherwise glittery cartoon. “Black Mask” embodies this camp; McGregor stealing the show with his scene-chewing Sionis. Alternatively from lounging in silk kimonos and bursting into petulant rage, desperately trying to prove he has nothing to prove. But Smollett-Bell also deserves recognition for her grounded performance as Dinah, who begrudgingly cannot help doing the right thing.

After a cluttered opening, and before a lacklustre climax, Birds of Prey hits its groove, encapsulated by a phenomenal fight-sequence at the police precinct. The hand-to-hand combat is wonderfully choreographed and viscerally executed, all adeptly directed by Cathy Yan. Birds of Prey righteously revels in its pop-punk aesthetic, but avoids looking garish, instead habituating bright days and fog-drenched nights.

Birds of Prey could appear slightly self-indulgent, but its pitfalls come from limitations. A brief and anomalous Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sequence hints at the manic-energy only some of the final film sustains. Regardless, Birds of Prey is a glitzy and fun female-led film, whose surprisingly subtle themes of emancipation are woven through its charismatic characters. Yes, it is still a corporate-processed comic book film, but at least this candy-coloured junk food is well-made and contains some sustenance. Plus, not all comic-book feminism need be heady and dignified, some of it can be riotous and irreverent too. Such is the mark of true freedom.


Image: Márcio Silva via Pexels