Review: Cathy Yan's Effervescent 'Birds of Prey' Flies High, Rules Hard
by Adam Frazier
February 7, 2020
Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Harley Quinn first appeared in Batman: The Animated Series in September of 1992. A psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, Dr. Harleen Quinzel was seduced by the Joker into becoming his crazed, mallet-wielding partner-in-crime. 24 years later, the fan-favorite villainess made her big-screen debut in 2016's Suicide Squad, portrayed by Margot Robbie (seen in Bombshell, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, I, Tonya). While that movie, about a team of supervillains saving the world, was an incoherent and aggressively dull mess, Robbie's memorable performance all but guaranteed that we would see the character on-screen again. Enter Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, in which Harley leads her very own girl gang into battle against a Gotham City crime lord.
Directed by Cathy Yan (of Dead Pigs) and written by Christina Hodson (of Bumblebee), Birds of Prey begins with Quinn's explosive breakup with the Joker. Without Mistah J's protection, Harley finds herself in the crosshairs of Gotham's narcissistic mob boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, most recently of Doctor Sleep) aka Black Mask, his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), and every other thug in the city. Quinn isn't the only woman on Roman's (s)hitlist, however. The mobster has also put a $500,000 bounty on Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a sticky-fingered pickpocket in possession of a data-encrypted diamond that could give him the keys to Gotham's underworld. Now Harley must find Cass and retrieve the diamond before Roman does. Along the way, she finds unexpected allies in three bad-ass women — Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a Gotham City police detective named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) — each with a score to settle with the mob boss.
The first Asian woman to direct a major studio-backed superhero movie, and only the second woman ever ― behind Wonder Woman's Patty Jenkins ― to make a DC movie, director Cathy Yan has delivered, without question, the most entertaining and effervescent movie in Warner Bros' DC Extended Universe. This is what Suicide Squad should've been, a rip-roaring mash-up of Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, with a strong ensemble anchored by Robbie's tremendous lead performance. Yan, Hodson, and Robbie (also a producer) are the perfect creative team to helm this film — they managed to make me forget all about David Ayer's previous film and Harley's connection to it. An excerpt from my Suicide Squad review:
"Robbie gives the movie a deranged energy with an electric performance even if the character she's portraying is oversexualized and underdeveloped. I guess the idea is that Harley will eventually become empowered, break away from the Joker, and become something of an antihero. Hopefully, someone will write a better part for her next cinematic outing — something that requires her to be more than just a 'crazy bitch' in short shorts afflicted by the male gaze."
This is precisely what Yan and company have done with Birds of Prey. The characters are fully developed, the story is engaging, and the male gaze is nowhere to be found. Hodson's Bumblebee was one of my favorite movies of 2018, so it's no surprise that the screenwriter has worked that same magic for another cinematic universe in desperate need of a shakeup. In addition to being a satisfying narrative filled with characters you invest in, it's also visually astounding. Including the costume work and production design by Erin Benach (Neon Demon, Drive) and K.K. Barrett (Her, Marie Antoinette) to the kaleidoscopic cinematography of Matthew Libatique, there's something eye-catching in every frame of this comic book movie.
As pitch-perfect as Robert Downey Jr. is as Iron Man, or as Ryan Reynolds is as Deadpool, there's no one better suited for the role of Harley Quinn than Margot Robbie. The Australian actress embodies the fun-loving psycho next door effortlessly, capturing the character's various eccentricities and her unpredictable nature. What's more, she's surrounded by equally engaging characters who are wildly different, making for some interesting interactions. Watching her play off Winstead's Very Serious™ Huntress and Perez's Cop From a Bad '80s Movie™ is a blast. What really makes Birds of Prey stand out from the recent DC movies, however, is the strength of its villain. It's clear that McGregor is having the time of his life as Roman/Black Mask. He's delightfully douchey — an egomaniacal sadist hiding under a gaudy, gold veneer. In comparison to duds like Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Shazam!), Ares (Wonder Woman), Steppenwolf (Justice League), and Enchantress (Suicide Squad), Black Mask is easily one of the best villains in the DC Extended Universe.
In conclusion, Birds of Prey is super-fun and rules very, very hard. Margot Robbie rules. Ewan Mcgregor rules. Cathy Yan rules. Christina Hodson rules. The soundtrack, with Spiderbait's cover of "Black Betty," "Love Rollercoaster" by Ohio Players, Adona's take on "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," also rules. I'm excited to see what this creative team does next and how these characters continue to evolve on the big screen.
Adam's Rating: 4 out of 5
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