Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) finds our anti-hero finally freed (quite against her will, I might add) from a life-defining toxic relationship; it also sees the character released from the constraints of Suicide Squad.
Brought to gum-smacking, skull-smashing life by Margot Robbie, lovelorn Joker girlfriend Harley Quinn was one of the few bright spots in DC’s messy villain team-up. That film felt like something between a made-for-the-SyFy channel Avengers mockbuster and a two hour-long trailer; it’s a marvel Robbie (who produced Birds of Prey) even got her own sequel.
Thankfully, you don’t have to watch Harley’s debut to enjoy her in Birds of Prey. In the jaunty animated sequence that kicks off the film, Harley promptly provides all the background we need: in short, after surviving childhood abandonment and getting her Ph.D, Dr. Harleen Quinzel was hired at Arkham Asylum, fell in love with an imprisoned supervillain, and abandoned her career (and sanity) to join him in his life of crime.
When we meet Harley again, she’s tending her wounds following a nasty break-up with the Clown Prince, consoling herself with copious amounts of alcohol, a hyena purchase, and an act of industrial arson.
Her post-breakup blues, however, are the least of her problems; she’s pissed off a lot of Gotham’s bad guys over the years, and her connection to the Joker was the only thing that kept her off the chopping block. When the assassins arrive (interrupting her hangover breakfast), she has no protection and absolutely no allies. (It’s a running gag that pretty much everyone in town finds her obnoxious).
But that’s all neither here nor there. While not as feared as her ex-boyfriend, Harley’s more than capable of taking care of herself.
The film’s real plot (recounted in a breezy non-linear fashion, with our oh-so-reliable narrator frequently interrupting the action to inform us of pertinent information she forgot to mention earlier) begins when young pickpocket Cassandra Cain lifts a valuable diamond. Unfortunately for her, she’s just stolen from the chief henchman of sadistic criminal overlord Roman Sionis, also known as the Black Mask (Ewan McGregor in a deliciously manic turn). Soon, every badass in Gotham is looking for the kid. A few of them are trying to rescue her; most just want the half-million dollar bounty.
That’s how Harley, captured by the Black Mask, literally saves her own skin by offering her services as a mercenary and finder of lost objects. (She even has a business card). The mission pits her against Renee Montoya, an embittered cop trying to build a case against Sionis, and her informant Black Canary, a sultry singer who becomes Sionis’s reluctant driver. (Another assassin, mafia daughter-turned-crossbow killer Huntress, also gets dragged into the mess through sheer coincidence.)
Birds of Prey is a hyper-violent girl power flick, with brutal fight scenes and thrilling getaways set to the rocker chick anthems of Heart, Pat Benatar and Kesha.
Decked out in gaudy bling and face tattoos, Margot Robbie is electric as her trashy psychopath with a heart of gold. Harley’s a joy to watch whether she’s sulking over a break-up, kicking the crap out of murderous goons, or feeding Twizzlers to her pet hyena. (She basically acts like the drunkest girl at the club at all times, making it doubly amusing when she has to remind people that she has a Ph.D.)
The film never forgets that Harley’s smarter than she looks. She’s frequently seen dispensing psychiatric diagnoses to friends and foes alike, and beneath her chipper exterior, she’s sometimes painfully self-aware about her own codependency issues (“Do you know what a Harlequin is?” she asks Black Canary after one too many drinks. “A servant.”)
She’s also a calculating fighter: while some of her combat victories are “dumb luck,” as she puts it, the majority are products of a brilliant Rube Goldberg machine brain. (The sadistic grin that appears on her face whenever she knows she’s got someone right where she wants them is priceless).
Robbie’s indisputably the star of the show here, but the ensemble is pretty great as well. I particularly enjoyed Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, the daughter of a murdered mobster whose single-minded quest for revenge has left her bereft of everything except the will to kill. (This includes social skills; the former Helena Bertinelli is unflappable when wielding a crossbow, but awkward and nervous in every other situation.) As Black Canary, Jurnee Smollett-Bell is the unlikely heart of the film, a woman whose moral code conflicts with her instinct for self-preservation. And Rosie Perez’s arc as Renee Montoya, a good cop passed over for promotion in favour of a male colleague, mirrors Harley’s attempts to distinguish herself from the Joker.
Ewan McGregor also shines as a weirdo villain, a wealthy heir who cheerfully orders targets’ faces sliced off and coos over his collection of shrunken heads. (A confession: prior to Birds of Prey, the last McGregor performance I’d seen was his turn as gentle orderly Danny Torrance in Doctor Sleep; the contrast here gave me whiplash).
Black Mask’s malevolent band of mercenaries are a formidable threat to Harley and her haphazard girl gang, and the convoluted plot builds into a wonderful candy-coloured finale.
The film is a triumph – fun from start to finish, and empowering in the most irreverent of ways (after a feistily feminist finale, the film ends with our hero stealing her friend’s car).
I sincerely hope Birds of Prey won’t be the last ride for Robbie’s Harley Quinn – but if it is, it’s a fitting send-off to the character.
Title: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Director: Cathy Yan
Screenwriter: Christina Hodson