Cathy Yan’s “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is DC Films’ answer to “Guardians of the Galaxy”. There’s genuinely bone-crunching violence with a dirty pop art graffiti aesthetic. Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask is a camp showman villain with bite whom you’ll love to hate. There’s the a cinematic portrayal of a salivating hangover hero (a bacon and egg breakfast sandwich) which we deserve. Most importantly, those servants of the story and the label’s male heroes/villains finally get a chance to give some back.
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker have broken up for good. The Gotham criminal fraternity sees the split as permission to seek reprisal for years of insults, pain and torment with impunity. When Roman Sionis (McGregor) captures Harley, she negotiates a deal, brings him a young thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) in possession of a diamond he desires.
In a double-cross, Harley must team up with Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and vigilante cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) to save Cassie and survive. The action has flair, packs a wallop and repeatedly demonstrates the devastating consequences of blunt force trauma with a delightful array of colourful weapons.
With second unit direction from “John Wick” maestro Chad Stahleski and the deployment of the 87Eleven stunt team, it’s the first comic book movie that genuinely feels like it’s keeping the pace with action cinema. The set pieces have excellent locations that promote organic spontaneity.
At one point Harley is herding Cassie and fighting her way through a police evidence lock up, and it’s a thrill to get a scene that brings back the classic weapon improvisation of Jackie Chan (“Rumble in the Bronx” particularly). Pick-pocket Cassie ducks and weaves through shelves handing Harley items to defend herself with until she comes upon a shelf with a samurai sword, a chainsaw and a steel baseball bat. You know what she chooses – and so do the chorus of irreparable henchman limb fractures.
“Birds of Prey” does a phenomenal job of expressing in live-action that New York burrows regional slice of the infamous comic book city’s life. East Gotham in “Birds of Prey” is a haven for Gotham’s underbelly to go outdoors in the day time. Gotham has always been a fictional stand-in for New York City and Yan and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, and production designer K.K. Barrett deliver an East Gotham out of the minds of the Safdie brothers.
The dominant superhero genre formula ranges from stoic earnestness (“Superman”) and off the wall, meta-textual roast (“Deadpool”). Yan and writer Christina Hodson find the perfect cocktail in “Birds of Prey”. It charts the course between those poles by anchoring the characters meta-references to stay in the confines of the world rather than standing atop the corpses of DC failures (or Marvel’s for that matter) to lift itself.
Hodson writes the characters in “Birds “of Prey” to have the awareness and the comedic timing to address the cliched elements of their origin, at the most inopportune moments. There’s a scene – perhaps the scene of the movie featuring Motoya and Dinah. Montoya is a battle-worn Rosie Perez, who brings decades of industry street smarts to make the cliched Montoya sing.
Dinah/Black Canary is played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, as a defensive and angry survivor. Montoya asks Dinah why she’s working in the criminal underworld, rather than following in the footsteps of her mother (the original Black Canary). Dinah addresses Montoya’s naivety; recollecting her mother’s ties to legitimate law enforcement – in the corrupt system of Gotham – as not shielding her from an untimely and unglamorous death.
Chis Nolan’s “Batman Begins” was the first to convey the rot permeating through Gotham City overtly. Judges, police precincts and armies of masked henchman are all available for the highest bidder. It’s a wretched reflection of society on the brink of collapse. It shouldn’t feel as familiar as it does.
The beacon of the mostly infuriating “Suicide Squad” is the iconic Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Taking the role of the story narrator, when she’s behind the wheel, we see the world through her Looney Tune perspective. Taking the lead of “Spider-Man: Into the Spiper-verse,” Harley sets the scene with welcome lightning-paced animatic origins.
We leap through time in stutter steps to emphasise Harley’s inexperience being able to tell her story. Robbie falls back into Harley’s familiar rhythm like a well-worn dance routine; what’s different is having the time and focus on reigning in her psychosis and giving us peeks into who she was before the Joker.
Robbie shines in the commitment to action. She gleefully embraces Harley’s chaotic kick-ass cabaret. Time slows down when she’s generating the blistering inertia to inflict the most explosive pain or firing confetti altered non-lethal ammunition to waylay her foes (and she’s not above killing when required). If you live online, you may have already snuck a peek at behind the scenes photos of Robbie harnessed to fast-moving vehicles, dishing out violence that percussively smashes faces to the beat of the score (which is loaded with banging tunes from “Black Betty” to “Barracuda”).
Mary Elizabeth Winstead looks phenomenal as the Huntress and her not so secret identity origin as Helena Bertinelli – the daughter of a crime boss who survives the slaughter of her family and is adopted by a trio of assassins to be groomed into a vigilante. Winstead embraces the awkward social skills of a person so intent on becoming a weapon that she’s completely inept at every aspect of socialisation. Yan’s “Taxi Driver” mirror riff for Winstead is hilarious – see a hero practising their ominous intro is very good indeed.
Ewan McGregor’s Roman/Black Mask is the ringmaster of East Gotham’s seedy underbelly, prescribing fun, and making offers that you can’t refuse unless you’d somewhat no longer have a face. He is the only member of the extended Batman Rogues Gallery that I feel could be at home giving Caesar Romero’s Joker a tour of his mask collection. And just in case you were wondering, that’s as big a compliment as I can provide. The build-up to McGregor’s off the wall scene-chewing, maniacal camp – is too fun. The tension between him and Chris Messina’s psychopathic sadomasochist Zsasz is pitching a serious tent in the sub-text.
In 2020 the tired comic book movie genre needs something wired like “Birds of Prey.” It’s a crude carnival ride; violent, colourful, with subtle and not so subtle elevated empowerment moments.