Film Review | Birds of Prey: Keep it crazy but stay light

Colourful, energetic and silly in all the right ways, this femme centric sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad course-corrects its predecessor’s many messy excesses by way of an empowerment arc for Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn

Although it has reportedly all but made its budget back at the time of writing, the studio heads Birds of Prey, And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn are reportedly mulling the idea of retitling the ostensible sequel to David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016) into something snappier so as to better meet box office expectations. In other words, Cathy Yan and Christina Hodson’s energetic little superhero flick is already being described as a failure, perhaps as an ongoing attempt to aid and abet a narrative that female-led blockbusters simply don’t make bank.

Whatever the reasons behind its supposed financial failure, the fact remains that Birds of Prey is a damn good time. Stripped of the excesses of its ostensible predecessor in the continuously patchy but somewhat healing cadre of DC Comics universe installments, its script – penned by Christine Hodson – may lack a certain finesse, but its hyperactive nature is more than matched by the harried state of mind of our protagonist Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), whose titular emancipation in the wake of a toxic relationship leads to a technicolour shit-show whose chaos and silliness is a welcome jolt to the increasingly sleek-but-staid output of superhero franchise entries.

Harley Quinn and the Joker have broken up, an introductory animated sequence narrated by Quinn herself informs us. Quinn is heartbroken but determined to get over it – a process that begins and threatens to end with a series of drunken binges and murder attempts by every single low-life that Gotham City’s Bonnie and Clyde have wronged throughout their inglorious career… without Joker’s protection, Harley is vulnerable, so much so that he goons won’t even let her finish her glorious egg-and-bacon sandwich (and crucial hangover salve) before opening fire.

Minor goons will turn out to be the least of Harley’s problems, however, as she also steps into the crossfire of sadistic mobster and nightclub owner Roman ‘Black Mask’ Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who is after a diamond snatched from his face-slashing henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) by the underage thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Aided by the wavering support of his nightclub singer turned driver Dinah ‘Black Canary’ Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who turns informant on Sionis after being contacted by beleaguered Gotham City Police Department investigator Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Sionis puts a hit on Harley after he discovers she’s in close proximity to his diamond… but the rogue has a trick up her sleeve… one that could come undone by the appearance of a crossbow-wielding mystery assassin (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

The story’s a bit of a quick grab-bag of pulp-crime tropes and thrown together action sequences with comedy bits spliced in, but Birds of Prey is executed with the kind of brio that betrays just how much fun everyone was likely having on set, a mood that will likely infect an audience primed to participate in the shenanigans with their guard down. Down to its judicious deployment of a fist-pumping, all-female soundtrack, Yan’s film is a robust band-aid applied over the messy wound left by Suicide Squad, whose musical selection was a symptom of a greater illness: too loud, too brash and – worst of all – try-hard to the point of revealing a complete, panicked desperation.

A smaller but nonetheless ensemble cast rounds things off this time around, and the equally hopscotch-like chronology and pacing is a justified move here, owing that it’s all coming at us courtesy of Harley Quinn, a narrator whose complete earnestness (with us, at least) helps her dodge the ‘unreliable’ tag somewhat, but whose inherent madness ensures that linear storytelling is never really an option.

Perfecting Quinn’s kooky mannerisms and trademark ‘noo-yawke’ drawl to a T, Margot Robbie – who also serves as co-producer – takes to the role with relish. No mean feat even for an actress on such a clear popular and critical ascendant streak, given how Quinn is something of a rarity in and of herself. Having debuted on the now-classic Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), the character proved too popular to be confined to that spinoff, with DC soon incorporating her into the comic book canon of Batman lore.

It would have been easy to chew the scenery with a character whose manic craziness is literally part of her MO, but while Robbie certainly holds nothing back, she also provides a welcome dose of airy lightness that tallies nicely with the ‘emancipation’ in the film’s long (and perhaps temporary) title.

The verdict

While far from perfect, Cathy Yan and Christina Hodson’s contribution to the otherwise ailing DC Comics cinematic universe is a welcome jolt of calculated silliness and brash spectacle, whose goofy humour and dynamic delivery makes for a legitimate good time. Also serving as co-producer, Margot Robbie makes the most out of this perfect opportunity to shine as a bona fide blockbuster star, offering an addled narration that justifies the film’s chronologically frenzied structure.