Birds of Prey

Four years after the cinematic catastrophe that is Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn — one of the most interesting female comic book characters who unfortunately got sidelined for the most part in the aforementioned title — finally has her chance to showcase how badass she is in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Directed by Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) and written by Christina Hodson (Bumblebee), Birds of Prey celebrates girl power and female solidarity by showing us that even in the dark  world of Gotham, a place dominated by patriarchy and capitalism, where women are either treated poorly or are ignored every day, they still have the power to take back what’s theirs. This theme is hardly new in female-led comic book adaptations nowadays, but while Patty JenkinsWonder Woman and Anna Boden/Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel explore that territory by highlighting the heroism of their titular characters, Birds of Prey does the complete opposite, zeroing in on Harley’s chaotic nature and the brutality she’s capable of in ways that are fun and full of glitter.

When we first meet Harley, she is wallowing in heartbreak because of her break-up with Joker. So in an attempt to cope with the pain, she does what many women do after a break-up: cutting her hair, partying and getting drunk every night, throwing knives to a painting of her ex, and adopting a new pet hyena. Just the basic stuff, no big deal. The only thing that she doesn’t do is tell people that her relationship with Joker has ended. And it’s not because she isn’t fully prepared to say goodbye to him or because she hopes that there might be a chance of them getting back together, but more because of her fear of losing the immunity she gains from simply being Joker’s girl. Yes, Harley’s association with Joker is part of the reason why, even when she gets on everyone’s nerves, no one seems to have the balls to lay their hands on her. But after a few epiphanies, Harley decides to break free from him once and for all by blowing up ACE Chemicals, the factory in which she proved her love to Joker.

This explosive farewell eventually leads to her being the number one target of Gotham. From a chauffeur whose legs she broke to a man whose face she messed up, everyone is out for blood. But it’s Harley Quinn, a former psychiatrist who holds a PhD and happened to be the brains of some of Joker’s chaos, we’re talking about here. So of course, she knows how to dodge the bullet almost every time. Well, at least until the rich, germaphobic crime lord Roman Sionis aka Black Mask, joins the hunt and drags Harley to help him catch a young pickpocket Cassandra Cain who stole his cryptic diamond. Before long, however, Harley finds herself tangled up with three eccentric women who each have their own agendas. There’s Black Canary, a singer hired by Roman as his new chauffeur who lives in the same building as Cassandra; Renee Montoya, an ambitious GCPD detective who’s been trying to catch Roman for ages; and a mysterious crossbow vigilante with childhood trauma, known as Huntress.

What follows is fairly predictable. These misfit women band together to protect Cassandra from Roman, and in order to defeat his henchmen, fight side by side and show their skills so that they can get out of the situation alive and well. But Yan’s energic direction manages to rejuvenate that predictability by messing with the standard three-act structure to give the film much of its unique touch, allowing the story to be told non-chronologically and entirely from Harley’s perspective using a playful voiceover that compliments the breaking of the fourth wall used throughout the film. Through Harley, the backstories of each character are included via snippets in the style of Kill Bill’s O-Ren Ishii. And though at times it feels a tad too crowded and the editing gets a little choppy, Yan’s decision to tell the story in this style is actually a brilliant idea. And not just because it makes the film much more whimsical and refreshing, but also because it encapsulates how chaotic and unreliable of a narrator Harley is.

As the main foundation, Hodson’s script perfectly embraces Harley’s personality, piling every moment with raunchy jokes while never jettisoning the danger that she and her peers encounter along the way. Even so, the script is also filled with empowering energy that underscores the film’s message of how women can also find their own autonomy in this patriarchal world if they’re willing to put their differences aside and work together as one solid unit. Yes, it’s true, Birds of Prey is a beacon of female power that displays how, in this cruel world, women are still being reduced to the partners of men, not as people who can stand on their own feet without any protection from men. The film clearly wants to unravel this hard truth, but in doing so, never once does Birds of Prey feel too self-serious as if it wants to shout “hashtag girl power” from the top of its lungs. If anything, what Birds of Prey truly excels at here is in telling an important story by simply acting like a girl: fun and powerful, with a little bit of sass.

Talking about kicking some ass, the action in Birds of Prey is also one of the joyous parts of the movie. CGI is minimally used, and each fight scene is choreographed creatively, varying from balletic movement to an exciting, brutal use of weapons like a baseball bat and a lighter. Yan, with wide shots and colorful visuals, captures each scene sharply, never missing one single badass moment. Anytime Harley and her gang show off their physical power and agility, Yan makes sure that we witness it. The penultimate battle in the amusement park is truly one of the most thrilling fighting scenes I’ve seen in any superhero movie.

Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

But all of those elements wouldn’t work without the powerhouse performances from the cast. As the iconic Harley Quinn, Margot Robbie gives an outstanding over-the-top performance that walks between a gonzo cartoonish villain and a deeply flawed human being trying to emancipate herself from the man she has left behind. She can go from being funny to intimidating in seconds while remaining fantabulous. Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell are also equally phenomenal at showing depth beneath their characters’ toughness. It is Ewan McGregor and Ella Jay Basco, however, that steal the spotlight, delightfully providing humor and awkwardness while having the time of their lives. Either when they’re alone or sharing a scene together, the dynamic and chemistry between the cast burst through the screen, hypnotizing us from start to finish. You just want to spend more time with them.

Birds of Prey is a work that is far from perfect, of course. The complexities of the characters beyond the cliche surface will leave some craving for more. But it is also a film that certainly knows how to enjoy each moment and keep things entertaining from start to finish. In a world dominated by men and supported by patriarchy, it’s nice to see a film about a group of girls trying to emancipate themselves from men while having a lot of fun doing it. After all, some girls just wanna have fun, blow up some factories, and kick some dudes’ asses, right?


B+ Review

Reyzando Nawara View All →

Reyzando Nawara is a passionate Indonesian based film and TV enthusiast who enjoys to write and discuss about cinema or anything TV-related. Big fan of Mia Hansen-Løve, Alex Ross Perry, and Noah Baumbach.

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