[Review]: ‘BIRDS OF PREY’ has wings, takes flight

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

BIRDS OF PREY

Rated R, 109 minutes.
Director: Cathy Yan
Cast: Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay BascoMary Elizabeth WinsteadEwan McGregor and Chris Messina

After some particularly dismal beginnings, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) returns in BIRDS OF PREY to claim her autonomy like a colorful phoenix ascending from the ashes of SUICIDE SQUAD’s cremains. Though director David Ayer’s pivot into a more audacious, comedically nihilistic side of the DCEU did well commercially (taking in almost $747 million worldwide), critically it flailed and was largely a disappointment. But what it cinematically birthed was a character rife with potential.

Not only does Cathy Yan’s female-fronted, feminist feature capture one woman’s resilience, rising above devastating heartache to find independence, strength and a new, improved girl gang, it symbolically represents that we women can overcome our worst starts. It’s an absolute blast and an undeniably fun live wire jolt of adrenaline – or whatever the modern equivalent is of mainlining Riot Grrrl Power. Delightfully devilish and deliriously wicked, this irreverent, rule-breaking romp delivers a contact high.

In this follow-up, Harley has just broken up with who she thought was the love of her life, the Joker (who’s shown in the cold open as a throwback-style illustration). He’d been taking all the credit for the criminal schemes that were initially her brilliant ideas. Despite all the anger and betrayal, she’s distraught, beside herself, wallowing in self-pity and sadness. She also realizes that without the immunity their relationship provided, she is a prime target for all the Gotham City thugs she’s wronged. When she blows up their favorite spot, ACE Chemicals, her explosive sayonara to their toxic romance becomes an announcement that she’s single.

At the same time Harley is struggling with her emancipation, a few other ladies are attempting to escape from their own metaphorical cages (a motif frequently used in K.K. Barrett’s production design, screenwriter Christina Hodson’s narrative and Yan’s visual cues). Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is an undervalued, marginalized Gotham City detective looking to move up in the ranks after she was passed over by the patriarchy. Clever pick-pocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) wants to be rid of squabbling adults. Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has spent most of her life imprisoned by the need to avenge her parents’ ruthless slaughter – and is working her way through her kill list. Nightclub singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is being kept under the threatening employ of arrogant, petulant, bourgeois sleazebag Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, who goes deliciously broad in the role).

Ewan McGregorChris Messina, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell in BIRDS OF PREY. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Sionis’ upscale business dealings are, of course, a front for criminal activities conducted by him and his merciless henchman, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). They’re bonded by a masochistic fetish of pain, humiliation and dominance. A legendary diamond belonging to the Bertinelli family has made its way into the city – a gigantic rock with laser-encoded encryptions inside. These codes provide the key to the fortune. But when that rock goes missing from Zsasz’s care, unwittingly swiped by sticky-fingers bandit Cassandra, Sionis both blackmails Harley into getting it for him by any means necessary and sets all of Gotham’s goons on their tails.

Yan and company have crafted a ballsy and bold picture. Harley’s fourth wall breaks, along with the goons’ title card grievances, are in line with the irreverent tone established. Hodson has made sure internal and external character stakes are cogent. She utilizes familiar story elements, but remixes them into a refreshed product. She and Yan effortlessly maintain an exaggerated tone throughout, even weaving in some neo-noirish undercurrents. It colorfully revels and relishes in the gaudy and garish, but walks a fine line so as not to collapse into vulgar auterism. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s use of a saturated, bright color palette and light is hypnotic, in the opening and when Harley storms the police station with her color bombs and confetti rifle.  

Big action set pieces are shot, choreographed and assembled coherently (courtesy of stunt work by 87Eleven, second unit work by JOHN WICK director Chad Stahelski and edits by Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff). Whether it be Harley fending off a bunch of aggrieved prisoners and hitmen in the police station, or when she straps on skates in pursuit of Sionis’ car in the climax, the character-driven momentum is kept at the forefront. There’s an empowering, invigorating feeling imparted by the funhouse sequence where all the women fight masked baddies – mainly at the moment Harley hands Dinah a hair tie. Plus, the catalyst for one of the first chases involves an egg sandwich, in which Yan applies the male gaze on that inanimate breakfast food.

The ensemble of feisty fighters is flat-out perfection. Robbie’s mayhem-fueled portrait of a mobster moll run amok is precisely tuned. She captures this unapologetic, dynamic complex woman with delirious verve and vigor. Smollett-Bell is a force of nature who delivers gut-punches with her kick-ass moves, but also with her ability to make pertinent emotions genuinely land. As per usual, Winstead is terrific, but really goes for broke amping up the witty drive behind her character’s deadpan nature. Perez’s unflinching delivery of Montoya’s genre-inspired dialogue augments the narrative’s gritty underbelly with humor. Basco, in her feature film debut, brings a grounded sense of angst, sarcasm and earnestness to the grown-ups’ more bombastic leanings.

Hefty praise aside, there are a few small blights. Villainous Sionis and Zsasz are left aching for a bit more oomph, or gravitas, behind their wickedness. While their gruesome tactics are intimidating, and their demeaning of an innocent female club-goer is abhorrent, their unhinged nature could stand to be dialed up further. As is, it struggles between the seriousness of these scenes and the silliness of the pair’s demented frivolity.

Grade: B+

BIRDS OF PREY opens on February 7.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.