Birds of Prey (2020) Review
PREY FOR GOTHAM!
It has been said (many times) that the DCEU has certainly had a sort of “rocky road” during its expansion / continuation over the years. While the franchise has had its certain highs points with the releases of Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam!, the DC Extended Universe has surely had some flops, including Justice League and most notable one in 2016’s Suicide Squad. While film did receive a large box office sum during its theatrical release (i.e. $746.8 million against its $175 million production budget), the movie was marred over mixed reviews from both critics and moviegoers alike, with the range coming from “mixed to negative” opinions. So, while the project received less-than stellar reviews, many did praise some of the casting choices, including actor Will Smith as Deadshot, actress Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, and actress Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn (aka Harleen Quinzel). Now, four years after the release of Suicide Squad, Warner Bros., DC Comics, and director Cathy Yan present the latest spin-off endeavor from the 2016 superhero film with the movie Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Does this “Harley Quinn” focused project find a way to be an entertaining piece comic book fun or is it just another “overblown” superhero cinematics that no one ask for?
After saving the world and breaking out of Belle Reve prison, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is ready to start off with a fresh start and, understanding that her life is better without her beloved Joker by her side, decides to break up with the “Clown Prince of Crime” and destroying their “special” Ace Chemicals love nest. Unbeknownst to Harley, this action sends shockwaves through Gotham’s underworld by seeing Quinn no longer under the Joker’s protection, which spells retribution for many out there who want to see Harley Quinn dead. In time, Quinn comes into contact with trouble when club owner / gangster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) is looking to settle his account with Ms. Quinn and is looking to retrieve a special diamond worth a fortune, sending loyal henchmen Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) and driver Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollet-Bell) to collect the jewel and return to Roman’s possession. Making a critical error in target the diamond comes in the form of low-key pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who lifts the diamond and swallows it, making her the focus of a citywide hunt. In the mix of the bounty and retrieving the diamond is Quinn, who’s also being chased by Detective Montoya (Rosie Perez), a driven cope, and shadowed by a rogue assassin named Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who’s seeking her own closure for crimes committed against her family.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
I’ve stated many times before in some of my previous superhero movie reviews, I’m more of a fan of Marvel than DC (in both the comic book and in their theatrical motion pictures). Still, several DC movies, including The Dark Knight trilogy, have been pretty endeavors to make me appreciate DC comics storytelling in a feature film. Of course, the DCEU has certainly been on a “bumpy road” (at least in my opinion), with the Suicide Squad being more at the lower end of the entertainment spectrum. Personally, I didn’t hate it as much as some moviegoers did, but it was still a mess of a superhero film, with too many characters, a weak plot, and just a “meh” feeling throughout. Still, as mentioned above, the acting talents of Will Smith, Viola Davis, and Margot Robbie stood out in the movie and definitely were the fleshed-out individuals that the feature wanted to focus on. On her part, Robbie was “entertaining” to see her portrayal of Harley Quinn, a character that unpredictable and wildly crazy. Yes, yes, I know that some “diehard” fans didn’t like her portrayal of Harley, but she was probably one of the best characters of Suicide Squad.
This brings up the point of this review, which is the examination of the film Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Man… that is a mouth full of a title. With all the rumors that were swirling around Suicide Squad 2, there were rumors about saying that a Harley Quinn movie was gonna be soon in development, with Margot Robbie once again reprising the role as the film’s lead character. In time, that “rumor” turned into a feature film realization with Birds of Prey being announced as well as the film’s cast selection. After that, I didn’t hear much about it until I saw the film’s movie trailer, which certainly did catch my attention every now and again when I went to my local movie theater. To me, it looked better than Suicide Squad, but it also kind of felt like a “female” Suicide Squad movie…. if you know what I mean; offering up a zany film with lots of acting talents and visual heavy representation of its story. I wasn’t holding anything against it or anything like that, but, giving the sort of “great division” as to what many thoughts about Suicide Squad, I had a lingering feeling that Birds of Prey might be a kind of disappoint. On the other hand, the DCEU, after the box office success of Aquaman and the critical praise from Shazam!, seems to be on the so-called “upswing” with their releases. So, I went to see Birds of Prey with a positive outlook on it. What did I think of it? Well, that outlook was certainly right. While it certain doesn’t stand as the best DCEU movie, Birds of Prey still provides plenty of visual fun and wild nuances to make this superhero female-driven team-up endeavor entertaining from start to finish. It’s not the most “refined” DC superhero movie out there, but, much like Harley Quinn, it dances to its own drumbeat.
Birds of Prey is directed by Cathy Yan, whose previous directorial works includes several short films like Last Night, Down River, and According to My Mother as well as the 2018 film Dead Pigs. Thus, given her background, Yan makes her sophomore film (i.e. Birds of Prey) her most ambitious project yet, with the movie being crazy wild ride within the scenario of “what becomes of Harley Quinn after the events of Suicide Squad”. In this regard, Yan succeeds by creating a fun motion picture that, unlike a lot of other DCEU installments, projects a certain type of silliness and relaxed feel than the usual serious / gravitas that past entries have offered up. Of course, the movie isn’t completely devoid of serious moments and Yan doesn’t just make the film of goofball tomfoolery of female characters run amok through Gotham City, with Birds of Prey utilizing its R-rating stance for a endeavor that violence, swearing, and actions fights (more on that below). So, while the movie doesn’t take itself too serious, Yan still finds a balance between comedic levity, action entertainment, and story / plot point meaning to make Birds of Prey a more “tonally” well-rounded experience than say what Suicide Squad or even like Shazam! (I liked Shazam!, but it was had a difficult time balancing its darker moments within a more comedic premise undertone). All in all, Yan makes it clear what the movie is and what it wants to accomplish; showcasing that a DCEU film project can be both silly and R-rated within a superhero genre. It doesn’t surpass what was accomplished in 2016’s Deadpool (in style, R-rating flavor, and storytelling entertainment), but it’s the best thing in the DCEU in trying to “shake up” its established cinematic universe. Plus, with the exception of Wonder Woman, this movie showcases the female superhero characters in their own title, which is great to see. Basically, if you don’t think that too hard in judging this movie and just accept the “crazy” joy ride that Yan creates, you’ll enjoy the feature even more. To me, that’s the best possible way to view it.
Visually, Birds of Prey is a candy-coated / eye-popping fun presentation; finding the visual flair and assorted nuances utilized perfectly well within its storytelling tale. Almost every single scene in the film has plenty of pizzazz and bold on-screen visuals that buoy the feature in its entertaining narrative undertaking and presentation execution. Like Suicide Squad, this is where Birds of Prey is quite similar; making use of its silly overtones and toils around with some violent acts, but in a way that makes it fun, including a creative use of music song selection that’s peppered throughout the movie. Where this particular movie does what Suicide Squad didn’t was too keep the film more grounded and less CGI heavy oriented. Yes, the movie is a more “smaller scale” superhero motion picture (more of a street level narrative mind you), but it never gets carried away with a more “grandeur” story idea of “saving the world” from a large CGI construct being and permeating the film’s narrative with heavy blockbuster visual beings. Again, the movie is more of a smaller scale, which is quite appealing. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” team, including K.K. Barett (production designs), Jennifer Lukehart and Florencia Martin (set decorations), Erin Benach (costume designs), and the entire art direction team, should be praised for their efforts to make Birds of Prey visually appealing to the eye. What does helps this “visual” look of the film is in the cinematography work by Matthew Libatique is solid, with plenty of “cinematic” moments that are highlighted throughout the feature to make it “pop”. In addition, the film’s action scenes, while not exactly the biggest or brightest, are definitely fun and appealing to watch, with some R-rating brutal violence (in a sort of John Wick way) that provides to be entertaining throughout each bout of fighting. I mean John Wick becasue director Chad Stahelski, who directed all three John Wick films, was reportedly brought on board the movie’s project to help “punch up” the brawls and chorography staging of the fights. This is quite noticeable in the various fighting scenes, which are a joyride of action fighting. Plus, the film’s climatic third act fight scene in a “funhouse” is absolute great. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Daniel Pemberton, is well-placed, with plenty of background melodies and “mood music” to help aid in the various scenes (be it lighthearted, drama, or tension).
There were a few criticisms that I had with Birds of Prey that, while wildly fun, sees holds the movie back from being the best of the DCEU movie. For starters, the movie’s pacing is off and becomes wonky at times. With the movie presented in a sort of “off-beat” fashion (something akin to the narrative styles of 2016’s Deadpool), Birds of Prey has a non-linear storytelling progression, which certainly does change it up, but, more often than not, it just jumbles everything. Again, it worked in Deadpool, which utilized the narrative presentation in a amusing way, but in Birds of Prey….it seems a bit off-kilter; struggling at times when things that start to progress nicely and then backpaddles on a tangent in explain certain characters or events that lead up to the point. I do understand that the Yan probably wanted this style of approach to be something “fun” and to have almost in the “thought process” that character of Harley Quinn perceives events in storytelling (as she narratives the film), but the end results just seems tedious and does more “backpaddling” in throughout the movie than intended and just overstays its welcome.
In addition, the movie’s story, for better or worse, seems a bit on the thin side as well as trying to cram too much into its runtime Sure, the story of the feature is fun, amusing, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, but the movie’s script, which was penned by Christina Hodson, is quite bursting with too many characters and not enough time to devote each respective character (heroes and villains) to make them come truly alive. For the most part, Birds of Prey is a Harley Quinn focused narrative, with the character being heavily featured in the movie, while the rest of the players (i.e. the Birds of Prey, Roman Sionis, Victor Zsasz, etc.) do get their moments to shine, but more of the shortchanged method of storytelling. I just felt like the script, which could’ve been fleshed out a bit more, could’ve been reworked in a different way and maybe dropping a character or two in streamlining the narrative being told. It’s not convoluted or anything, but just thin with too many moving parts for such a simplistic story to tell. Plus, the script could’ve easy created more dynamic character development in certain characters, including its antagonist characters. Maybe that’s Hodson’s handing of the script with a combination of Yan’s directing. All in all, I just felt like that Birds of Prey could’ve been that much more interesting and entertaining in a way that was something to what Guardians of the Galaxy was able to achieve; dancing to its own beats and style as well as providing a new flavor to cinematic universe. Birds of Prey achieves this (somewhat), but not to its full extent with a very elongated way to resolve a rather simply plot.
What does elevate those critical points of criticism in Birds of Prey is in its cast, which seems to be having a ball throughout the movie and playing these characters in a more “broader and bolder” take on these respective characters. Naturally, the movie’s main lead character of Harley Quinn is front and center for majority of the film, with actress Margot Robbie reprising her character from the Suicide Squad movie. Robbie, known for her roles in Focus, Bombshell, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, easily slides back into the character she created back in 2016’s Suicide Squad; playing on the off-beat character with effortless grace, poise, and just sheer raw fun to the proceedings. Unlike last time whether she shared the screen with many characters, Robbie certainly carries the weight of Birds of Prey in her portrayal of Harley and she does a great job of her part. Plus, it’s great to see the character her own spin-off feature film, with Robbie adding more depth (and maniac zaniness) to her performance of Harley Quinn. As to be expected, Robbie is the beating heart of the film and, like her character, she’s having a blast in doing it.
The rest of main protagonist falls to the actual “Birds of Prey” group, with the characters of Helena Bertinell (aka Huntress), Dinah Lance (aka Black Canary), Renee Montoya, and Cassandra Cain filling in the roles. Some do get more of a “memorable” spotlight than others and the actual team, including Harley Quinn, doesn’t get to together until the film’s third act, but female acting talents that play these respective characters are solid in their overall likeability. Who gets the most “screen time” would have to be the character of Dinah Lance, a talented singer and current driver to Roman Sionis, who is played by actress Jurnee Smollet-Bell (Underground and The Great Debaters). Smollet-Bell is actually really good in the character of Dinah and is quite easy to root for her for most of the picture (more so than Robbie’s Quinn). I liked her in the movie as she was a fun spin on the whole Black Canary persona. Next, is actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as Helena Bertinell, a skilled assassin that goes by the name of Huntress. Although her character is probably seeing the least of these four Birds of Prey characters, Winstead certainly charms her way into the movie and makes the character her own as well as being quite the “scene stealer” in the film.
In the middle of the pact is actress Rosie Perez (The Road to El Dorado and White Men Can’t Jump), who plays the character of Renee Montoya, a cynical detective that goes searching for clues on various characters throughout the movie, including Harley, Roman, and Cassandra. Personally, Perez is fine in the role, but with a lot of the characters in Birds of Prey being wild, colorful, and a bit “eccentric”, the character of Montoya is the more “straight-laced” individual in the movie, which makes her the “uninteresting”. Still, for what its worth, at least Perez gets the job done. I just kind of wished that added more to her character. Lastly, actress Ella Jay Basco (Teachers and Veep) plays the character of Cassandra Cain, a young girl who accidentally gets caught in the greater power struggle with many of the film’s characters. Basco is “okay” in the role (not knocking her acting talents), but the character is quite simple and only acts the film’s “McGuffin”. To me, she is the weakest character of the female leads. Still, for all that, she’s not terrible, but just doesn’t have the best character build.
In the villain category, actor Ewan McGregor plays Birds of Prey’s main antagonist character of Roman Sionis, a ruthless crime lord boss that wants to Harley out of the picture and Cassandra’s possession of the diamond. Known for his roles in the Star Wars prequel trilogy as well as Doctor Sleep and Trainspotting, McGregor has become quite the seasoned actor throughout his career. While his involvement in Birds of Prey isn’t his most noteworthy, McGregor still makes the most of it within his performance of Roman; having a ball in playing the somewhat unstable and psychotic mob kingpin. Much like Robbie with her portrayal of Quinn, McGregor gives Sionis a “large than life” feeling that is fun, which sort of counterbalance that fact the character of Roman is pretty much a weak villain. His crazy and unbalanced, but he’s not a “viable” threat (at least to me). Still, McGregor is very much having fun in the role. Plus, it’s never explained why Roman Sionis wears his “black mask”. The other villain in the movie would be in the character of Victor Zsasz, Sionis’s psychotic right-handed man, who is played by actor Chris Messina (Sharp Objects and Live by Night). While Messina’s acting is fine in the role, the character of Zsasz (in his full extent) is a bit of letdown. Yes, he’s menacing and evil, but in a more “meh” type of way. Messina gets the job done for what the movie asks of him, but the character of Victor Zsasz feel quite one-dimensional and pretty forgetful of the movie’s cast of characters.
Lastly, there is an Easter egg (sort of) during the post-credits portion of the movie, but it’s more of a small bit and not something that’s setting up for a future installment.
Notorious bad girl Harley Quinn has just broken up with the Joker and is now ready to “make her mark” on Gotham in the movie Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Director Cathy Yan sophomore feature length directorial film certainly does feel like a amusing feature; utilizing the wacky and insane mind of the character of Harley Quinn and producing a feature that’s visual entertaining ride. While some particular elements don’t actually flow correctly with the movie, a great majority of the film provides of plenty of big distraction entertainment, especially thanks to the snappy dialogue, a terrific performance from Robbie, a solid cast, some slick action choreography / staging, and a nifty third act climax presentation. Personally, liked this movie. Yes, it doesn’t beat out as my favorite DCEU movies (that is still Aquaman in my book), but the film was a wildly fun and amusingly appealing in how it handles its tale. Plus, the movie really doesn’t it self too-serious, which makes it that much more enjoyable (at least in my opinion). Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a solid “recommended” as it will surely please fans of DC comics and Harley Quinn fans alike. Will there be a follow-up sequel of some kind? It’s hard to say, but I would welcome the idea of one materializing in the near future. For now, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is visual glitter bomb explosion of female DC superheroes done right and provides a zany offbeat entry in the DCEU that works well; offering a pleasant side-step diversion to its more serious installments.
4.0 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: February 7th, 2020
Reviewed On: February 12th, 2020
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is 109 minutes long is rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material