Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020) - Cathy Yan
Suicide Squad was one of the most disappointing films I've seen in recent years. I had high hopes going in. DC delivers an Avenger's style team up using a plethora of Batman's rogue's gallery. I loved the DC animated film Batman: Assault of Arkham and thought Suicide Squad would be a good way to give lesser-known DC Comics villains a chance to shine. But with the exception of Will Smith as Deadshot and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, the film was a lacklustre, confusing, and mishandled mess. That Robbie's Harley Quinn would emerge so exceptionally from that film is a testament to both the strength of the character and how effectively and committed Margot Robbie gave life to the comic book favorite.
It felt like a smart move then to create a spin-off film focusing on Harley Quinn and giving Robbie a chance to shine. It's no understatement that Robbie embodies the character is such a way that the character now feels as intrinsically hers as Hugh Jackman to Wolverine. And I don't draw that comparison lightly.
The setup is perfect. Following the end of her romance with Joker, open season is called on Harley Quinn, who, under the protection of the Joker, had ruffled a number of feathers of the Gotham underworld. There is a hilarious early scene that sees Harley assaulted from all sides by a range of bad guys whom she has wronged. It brilliantly sets the tone for the film. Secondly, despite Harley Quinn always being associated with the Joker, and despite the shadow Joker casts over DC generally, it's a credit to the film that Harley Quinn so quickly shrugs off the association of the character and emerges as a more interesting, fully rounded character. Birds of Prey may never aspire to the serious, psychological undertones of DC's standalone Joker film, but Birds of Prey is a lot more entertaining and fun than Todd Phillips' 2019 film and i'd rather see Harley Quinn return in a series of sequels.
But as the title implies, this isn't just the Harley Quinn show. Supporting her is a range of characters who are all interesting and given clear motivation and agency, even if none of them successfully emerge from Robbie's impressive shadow. It takes some time, and some heavy-lifting in the plot to bring together the various characters, all tied together through abuses at the hands of men and finally working as a team to overcome otherwise insurmountable odds. The film wears its feminist leanings with little subtly, but it works because Harley Quinn is both unsubtle and an unlikely feminist hero.
Joining Harley Quinn are Cassandra "Cass" Cain, who develops beyond a plot device to be a funny sidekick. Her pickpocketing sets the central plot in motion as Harley Quinn most saves her life from vile, villainous Roman Sionis (a delightful scenery-chewing turn by Ewan McGregor) by acquiring a priceless diamond that Cass has stolen from henchman Victor Zsasz. Hot in pursuit of both of them in maligned and beleaguered police detective Renee Montoya has seen men steal her collars and her career progression. As well as hunting Cass and Quinn, Montoya is also investigating a series of mob murders by the "crossbow killer", aka The Huntress. Who is on her own revenge mission. Finally, making the Birds of Prey complete is the objectified singer and dancer Dinah Lance, who reveals a superstrength late on. To describe this you could be forgiven for thinking the film would feel convoluted and heavy with exposition, but thanks to a great script by Christina Hodson, that zips along, and perfect casting of the Birds of Prey (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jumee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez and Ella Jay Basco) the film never gets weighed down by plot, and, moving briskly from set-piece to set-piece.
This brings us to one of the highlights of the film; a series of action sequences that are fun, exciting, death-defying, and genuinely brilliant. Quinn and her team prove themselves to be adept fighters who can't help but enjoy themselves while seeing off a string of anonymous male attackers. Whether Quinn is breaking into the GCPD or breaking out, besieged by a SWAT team, the action is relentless and the choreography exceptional. Later, even more, fun is had as Quinn and the Birds of Prey battle seemingly endless henchmen at a Fun House in one of the film's best sequences (there is even a nifty joke about Quinn's costume change).
In all of this Robbie is stunning and it's not going overboard to suggest she should be the recipient of an Oscar nomination. She perfectly captures Harley Quin's insanity and relishes the opportunity, making the character her own. It's also a big step up from the smaller role she played in Suicide Squad, and you feel watching that Cathy Yan has created space where Robbie can go wherever she wants with the Harley Quinn. And this only enhances her portrayal of the unhinged character and gives the feel a much more playful edge.
Birds of Prey stands out as one of DC's greatest achievements, thanks predominantly to Robbie's stunning performance of Quinn. But the script and direction also give the film the right tone and style, never overplaying its feminist themes and never forgetting that what is most important is that the film is fun, exciting, and entertaining. And in this respect, the film never makes a misstep.