DC now have their DEADPOOL. That’s the headline, that’s the tone of BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) but it’s more than that on its own terms as well. For all the sweary shenanigans and breaking of limbs, this has real heart to it.
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is done with her abusive relationship with Mister J. But just as she gets out in the world to make a name for herself she crosses the wrong gangster (Ewan McGregor) and gets a target on her back. Now Harley and an eclectic collective of formidable women must protect a teen runaway (Ella Jay Basco) from Black Mask’s thugs.
First off, the action is killer – Cathy Yang needs an action franchise. My favourite sequence is Harley’s one-woman assault on the police precinct with her grenade launcher loaded with non-lethal (but colourful, and painful) ammunition. She then demonstrates more deadly tricks with her metal baseball bat than Baseball Bat Man in THE RAID 2, and he was called Baseball Bat Man! All the other Birds of Prey get the chance to kick ass too, and the sight of the team working together to take on wave after wave of bro goons is a sight to behold.
Robbie gets to inhabit Harley in the way she wasn’t given the room to in SUICIDE SQUAD. There she was window dressing, now she’s an interesting character. Why do so many people forget Harley isn’t stupid? She’s got a PHD! The film opens with a cartoon of her life story so far, and her being underestimated is a big part of that. She’s intelligent but a bit mad and with a really goofy sense of humour. She wants to finally follow her own path, do what she does because she wants to do it, from going down to a grimy deli for her favourite egg sandwich hangover cure to buying a hyena for company in her apartment.
Elsewhere Mary Elizabeth Winstead often steals the show as the deadpan vengeful killer Huntress, who you can really see squirm with discomfort whenever she’s not allowed to resolve a situation with her crossbow. The rest of Harley’s makeshift team do their best to make an impact but aren’t given as strong an arc as their loony leader, existing in her orbit and responding to her questionable actions. Jurnee Smollett-Bell impressively belts out a song and Rosie Perez gets to be more dynamic than a middle-aged female cop usually gets to be, but you’d hope for a few more layers for them all if they get another go around.
Ewan McGregor seems to be doing a Sam Rockwell impression as Roman Sionis/Black Mask, and while his accent occasionally wobbles, he really sells his character’s layers of monstrosity. He goes from spoiled rich kid not getting his way one scene to sadistic face-peeler the next and you really can’t wait for someone to take nasty revenge on him.
Every thrilling film worth its salt should have a funhouse finale. There have been some great ones over the years – ENTER THE DRAGON, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, THE GUEST and now BOP joins that group. There’s just something about an environment designed for kids to have fun turning deadly.
If I had one biggish criticism it’s that the team don’t really come together until the final act. The first two thirds of the movie is Harley taking a long time to tell a simple story, before the others on the periphery make their way front and centre. I know they want to get across the unique way Harley’s mind works, but the constant back-and-forth, side-to-side editing of the tale does niggle after a spell.
Birds of Prey is a colourful comic book caper full of playful asides and ultraviolence – it’s basically everything Suicide Squad wasn’t. The surface-level stuff nearly always lands and despite the plotting being a bit blurry and some characters not given enough interesting things to do, there’s more than enough here to make you hope Harley and the Birds of Prey get another outing soon. You do not want to waste these vibrant characters a single movie, because it seems like they’re just getting started. SSP