BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) review

Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (Warner Bros.)

Birds of Prey (and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) hits cinemas worldwide from February 7, 2020.

Synopsis

You ever hear the one about the cop, the songbird, the psycho and the mafia princess? “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is a twisted tale told by Harley herself, as only Harley can tell it. When Gotham’s most nefariously narcissistic villain, Roman Sionis, and his zealous right-hand, Zsasz, put a target on a young girl named Cass, the city is turned upside down looking for her. Harley, Huntress, Black Canary and Renee Montoya’s paths collide, and the unlikely foursome have no choice but to team up to take Roman down.

Review

There’s a strange narrative in the media that Warner Bros. attempts to bring DC characters to the big screen are forever getting “back on track” following the perceived lack of quality in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and so forth.

We saw it with Aquaman, we saw it again with Shazam! and we saw it with Joker and now we’re seeing it again with Birds of Prey. Just how many successful films do Warner Bros. need to release before “getting back on track” is actually just performing well?

If Birds of Prey doesn’t convince the naysayers that DC Films has a tight grip on its characters and its potential then I fear that nothing will. This film is an absolute adrenaline-fest from start to finish and this reviewer can’t remember the last time he had so much fun at the cinema.

Director Cathy Yan, writer Christina Hodson and producer/star Margot Robbie have crafted a bonkers-but-brilliant comic book movie which is truly unlike anything else I’ve seen in years.

Though many of the pieces in Birds of Prey feel familiar, they are presented in such a disjointed way that it feels fresh even when its simply laying the groundwork for a complex narrative structure. This isn’t the first time we’ve been presented with a non-linear timeline in a film, neither is it the first time a specific character has controlled the narrative and told the story from their own perspective. It’s just the first time those structural elements have been presented to us by Harley Quinn (Robbie).

The story of Birds of Prey isn’t complicated: Harley has broken up with Joker and no longer has his protection. That makes her fair game for anyone she has ever done wrong in Gotham. When Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) catches up to her she begs for her life on the premise she’ll find his missing diamond, stolen by Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Chaos ensues.

It’s a brilliantly simple story which allows for a huge amount of breathing space for characters to fully ingratiate themselves in to the DCU-on-film. Hodson’s script is a prime example of characters leading the story and not the other way around.

It functions at it’s best when it leans in to its bonkers aesthetic. It’s at these moments when you realise that Birds of Prey really doesn’t give a f**k what the audience thinks and it’s this kind of attitude which gives it the potential to become a breakout hit for Warner Bros. In many ways this feels like the film David Ayer’s Suicide Squad should have been.

The film very much honours that which came before but goes to great lengths to improve upon aspects which ultimately led to its muddled reception. There are holdovers: on-screen graphics are the most visual callback but those are better implemented and less gimmicky, the darkly comedic tone is effortlessly wrapped around Harley’s personality and bends to her will throughout the film.

There are less subtle nods to Suicide Squad as well, you’ll certainly see a Daddy’s Lil Slugger shirt and one or two other visual cues which may look familiar to you.

But there are drawbacks. For die-hard fans of Huntress (Mary Ezliabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) this film may be a difficult pill to swallow but not because they are poorly conceived or badly characterised. What you need to understand is that the entire narrative of Birds of Prey is told to the audience by Harley and she wasn’t present for all of the action meaning some of it is merely her perception of events.

Characters, particularly Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis, will often speak with particularly Harley-esque language, or will take on Harley’s mannerisms because, in her head, that’s just how people act. But peppered between her perceptions are moments that truly reflect who these characters are.

A prime example is when Sionis and henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) are brutally peeling the faces off one of Sionis’ enemies. To begin the scene Sionis is masterfully evil and unrepentant to his crimes. He promises to leave the victims young daughter alive until he spots that she cried so hard she got a snot bubble. Immediately he camply squeals “ew” and has Zsasz take off her face.

As a storytelling device it is pure genius. Christina Hodson really got in to Harley’s head and brought out a story which is equal parts bonkers and intelligible. It ensures that Birds of Prey is unpredictable throughout and there is never a dull moment.

The casting on the film is excellent. It’s difficult to pick a standout as all of the lead actresses are excellent and embody their roles perfectly. On first watch the film really does belong to Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Dinah Lance/Black Canary. She absolutely explodes off the screen in all her scenes. Not only does she have an exquisite singing voice but is also able to portray the inner strength of Dinah through her fight scenes. It took away a strong sense that Smollett-Bell committed herself to the role and fully immersed herself in Dinah.

There’s enough time to explore some of her backstory which provides a tantalising tease to DC Comics history but also shines a light on the emotional complexity of the character.

Oh and that canary cry… wow!

Huntress, played skilfully by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, has the least exposure of the team bu is still able to make an impact. Though she plays her as stoic and emotionally stunted she is still able to raise a good few laughs from the audience. It’s clear this version of the character, who has a near perfect retelling of her comic book origin, struggles from a lack of warmth in her upbringing. In the time she spends on screen she is able to show there is a warmth hiding underneath the cold exterior.

Her best scene is hands down any attempt to tell other characters that her codename is Huntress.

The biggest surprise for me was easily Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya. Only knowing Perez from The View, I was not sure what to expect. Despite being a hardened cop there was a vulnerability to her character which felt instantly relatable. Being the eldest she does also fall in to a maternal role towards the other characters but she can still hold her own in a fight.

Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) is the most updated from her comic book counterpart. Though we never meet or hear about her parents – she is a foster child here – the mere fact she speaks is a huge departure from the pages of DC Comics.

In many ways Cass is the generic, angsty, streetwise teen character. But Basco fits in so well with the ensemble and has such a palpable rapport that it’s difficult not to warm to her character. Though unlikely to become Batgirl anytime soon there certainly does seem to be a future for her in the DCU.

Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina are both delightfully evil. McGregor is easily enjoying every moment of being on screen and is one of the best DC villain portrayals I have ever seen, even if it is told through the lens of Harley. The character she creates is dynamite to watch.

Messina is perhaps a little underused but is able to hold his own in the mix whenever he is on screen. I would like to have seen more of her version of Zsasz as it feels like we didn’t spend enough time with him.

The overall production is incredibly high quality. Set design, particularly Sionis’ bar and the fun house seen in the final battle, is eye catching and immersive. I often found myself searching the screen for visual clues and Easter eggs.

The city of Gotham isn’t heavily explored, we stay very much on the East-side, which is by far a minor niggle. What we do see ranges from feeling like the city outside your window to something much more atmospheric when Harley confronts Black Mask on the pier.

Visual effects are well utilised and the film doesn’t try to stretch its budget in order to grapple for spectacle. Effects are well integrated in to the world and rarely obvious or distracting on first watch.

Instead the film utilises an impressive amount of practical effects and stunt work which is a hugely admirable during this age of why-do-it-for-real-when-you-can-do-it-in-CGI. A particular nod has to go to Margot Robbie for performing so many stunts from roller skating all the way to gymnastic fight choreography.

The soundscape of Birds of Prey is a great mix of Daniel Pemberton’s rousing score and popular music. Given the soundtrack’s penchant for trap music there’s a great amount of classic rock and alternative music in the film itself. Standouts are Heart’s Baracuda and a cover of Hit Me With Your Best Shot which hands a huge punch to the film’s climactic buildup.

Pemberton’s score provides a great underpinning for the story and there are the origins of some great themes for these characters to be heard underneath all the bombastic sound effects.

Verdict

Birds of Prey is quite simply fantabulous. It’s bright, brash, colourful and everything fans could want from Harley Quinn. It sets up the titular team brilliantly for future big screen outings and I can’t wait to see where they go next.

9/10

Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) stars Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary and Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya. The movie will be directed by Cathy Yan and arrives in cinemas on February 7, 2020.


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About Neil Vagg 4569 Articles
Neil is the GYCO Editorial Chief. He has a BA in Film & Tv and an MA in Scriptwriting; he currently works 9-5 as an office manager and 5-9 as a reviewer/web designer. He has been subscribing to comics for around nine years but has been reading them as long as he can remember. Favourite comics: Batman; Nightwing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and All New X-Men Favourite films: Batman (any apart from & Robin); Star Trek Generations, Underworld, Beetlejuice Favourite TV shows: Fringe; Buffy, Arrow, TBBT, Being Human UK and Star Trek TNG