Birds of Prey (United States, 2020)

February 06, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Birds of Prey Poster

It’s hard to imagine that something as vapid and chaotic as Birds of Prey (full title: Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) transpires in the same “universe” (the DCEU) as Joker. With its John Wick-inspired focus on unbridled action and a storyline that could be described on a napkin, Birds of Prey represents a 180-degree turn from the seriousness and introspection of Joker. Although ostensibly sharing a location and certain characters, the two movies could cause whiplash to anyone willing to watch them back-to-back.

Following a cutesy animated introduction to the character of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and a recap of her role in Suicide Squad, the movie starts with a series of kaleidoscopic, high-energy scenes that prove to be Birds of Prey’s high point. Even in these early moments, there’s a sense that narrative isn’t going to be a big selling point for this movie and those misgivings prove to be correct. Ultimately, this is about how a variety of characters go looking for a McGuffin called the “Bertinelli diamond” (not to be confused with the “Berardinelli diamond”) and, upon discovering that it currently resides in the digestive system of a young Asian pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), determine how best to retrieve it. Harley chooses prune juice and other laxatives. Psycho crime lord Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) and his palindromic henchman, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), opt for the quicker method of cutting her open. Also in on the hunt are police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), an assassin with a penchant for using a crossbow who calls herself “The Huntress” (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and the nightclub singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Those three will eventually team up to become the “Birds of Prey” with Harley Quinn along for the ride to introduce viewers to them so they can go off and star in their own movie without her.

The movie is largely unconcerned about whether it makes sense; it’s opting to go the “spectacle” route and, as such, offers arguably the most kitschy DC comic book-inspired property since Batman and Robin. Aware that no one is going to take these characters or situations seriously, director Cathy Yan selects a mocking, self-deprecating tone similar to what was offered in Deadpool. Unfortunately, although there are some laugh-out-loud moments and solid one-liners, Christina Hodson’s script isn’t as crisp or daring as the one credited to Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. The filmmakers’ solution to the minimalist plot is to pad out the running time with countless acrobatic fight scenes. The sameness of these results in diminishing returns. The first time we see it, with Harley doing a dance of whoop-ass, it’s fun. By the fifth or sixth time, it has lost its zest. When there’s a car chase late in the movie, it’s refreshing mostly because it’s not more of the same.

It would probably be stating the obvious to say that the best thing about Birds of Prey is Margot Robbie. (It’s certainly not Ewan McGregor, whose Black Mask is among the least intimidating bad guys in any recent comic book movie. Thanos, he ain’t.) The movie exists largely because of the box office success of Suicide Squad ($325M domestic) and the praise fans showered on the actress. This post-Joker (he dumped her) iteration of Harley Quinn is loosely connected to the one in the earlier movie, but the tone is considerably more flippant. While the film works in its presentation of Harley, it’s less successful introducing the three Birds of Prey. With truncated backstories and too little screen time to develop them or introduce any interpersonal chemistry, the origin story of the titular trio feels like an afterthought. They’re interlopers who have stumbled into someone else’s movie. It’s also odd how often the movie name-checks Joker and Batman without having either appear in the flesh. (Although it could be considered a tease, it’s more likely a casting issue, since both roles were effectively “open” at the time that the movie went into production.)

It’s no secret that the fastest growing niche of comic book movies is one that features strong female characters and it makes sense that, if no reason other than to limit the “male gaze” aspect, women directors are brought on board for these projects (as was the case with Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman). While there’s certainly no lack of “girl power” in Birds of Prey, one has to wonder whether Cathy Yan (making her sophomore feature following the low-budget Dead Pigs) ever truly has control of all the cogs in her machinery. With the flashbacks, flashbacks-within-flashbacks, snarky asides, big budget set pieces, and music video cutscenes, there are times when Birds of Prey seems more concerned about jolting an ADD audience than telling a story.

Perhaps this is what we have come to for movies like this. Birds of Prey needs to be experienced in the biggest theater with the most impressive sound system available. The sensory assault provided in those surroundings will amplify the film’s strengths and neuter its weaknesses. Spectacle movies rely on the dominance of the technical aspects and the awe created by top-notch sound design to pin the viewer to his/her seat for the duration. The John Wick-style fights (choreographed in part by John Wick director Chad Stahleski, who was brought in to consult), Michael Bay-friendly pyrotechnics, and fiery, colorful palette of Harley Quinn and her sidekicks are tailor made for theatrical viewing; this movie will fall apart in even a moderately sophisticated home setting. Birds of Prey is a glorious, hyperkinetic mess and, although it never quite takes flight, it at least holds the attention.

Birds of Prey (United States, 2020)

Director: Cathy Yan
Cast: Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Chris Messina
Home Release Date: 2020-05-12
Screenplay: Christina Hodson
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Music: David Pemberton
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2020-02-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: Action/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1