Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey
by Dennis Campbell
There aren’t many roles where you can’t imagine another actor playing them. Kathy Bates comes to mind, or if we’re looking for a much lighter tone then Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. I’m thinking more of the latter really, career defining roles that you instantly think of once the actors’ name is mentioned. Johnny Depp. Captain Jack Sparrow. In this case, it’s Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. It’s hard to justify the title of this movie. The title suggests that the Birds of Prey, a collection of Gotham crime fighters, would be at the forefront of the film. However, the promised team up doesn’t happen until late into the third act of the film. Rather, much of this film is spent with Robbie as she shows why she was the perfect person for this film.
In a post-Suicide Squad world, Harley Quinn has broken up with the Joker, a fact she does not share with anyone at first. Although she longs to show her independence, her connection to the Joker is something that she cannot seem to break free from at first. Then, the Cupid of Crime establishes herself as a one person show and while she enjoys the freedom it brings, there are plenty of people who now want her dead. At the same time, there is a diamond being hunted for by both sides of the law. Inside it is the account information to a fortune that can buy all of Gotham. While Harley tries to fend off the people trying to kill her, she searches for the diamond as the other main characters do, which leads to the final showdown between the Birds of Prey and Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
When it comes to live action films, the DC Extended Universe has had a rocky start to it. With the exception of ‘Wonder Woman,’ (2017), ‘Aquaman’ (2018) and ‘Shazam!’ (2019), the remainder of the catalog failed to receive much critical or box office acclaim. However, after its opening week, ‘Birds of Prey’ has a solid 80% on Rotten Tomatoes and while it has suffered at the box office, I would venture that of the four movies listed, it is easily the second best, directly behind ‘Wonder Woman.’
So, what makes this film so enjoyable? As I stated earlier, if you were hoping for a Birds of Prey movie, then this is unfortunately not for you. However, if you are simply a fan of comics or are in the mood for a good action film, then this will keep you entertained. One of the aspects I enjoyed the most was how bright and fun the movie was at times. Generally DC movies are dark and brooding, especially the best they have to offer (Dark Knight, Superman Returns, Wonder Woman), so it was a relief to have such an upbeat movie. The film itself is a spiritual successor to ‘Suicide Squad,’ which while entertaining in parts, felt disjointed and had massive pacing and acting issues, also there were times the screen was so dark it was hard to see what was happening. Those flaws are fixed here. All of the action scenes are lit well-enough to where you can see the high flying or bone crunching action. I do not believe there is a single actor who underperforms in the film, the highlights being Robbie and McGregor. Although her performance is limited, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is fantastic as Huntress. She provides a level of seriousness and humor that is perfectly balanced in the role. Something that I did need to warm up to at first was how the story was being told. The film is narrated by Harley Quinn, who is an unreliable narrator, so it is reasonable that events or characters will be out-of-place, and you might question some of the events that are explained. Once I came to terms with that though it added another layer of enjoyment to the film. There is a very cavalier, just go with, feeling to, ‘Birds of Prey,’ and once you’re along for the ride it is a joy. This was Director Cathy Yans’ second ever feature film, with the previous being the 2018 piece, ‘Dead Pigs.’ In that film we see an eclectic collection of people spending the day together as thousands of dead pigs wash down a river into Shanghai.
This film reminded me very much of the Joaquin Phoenix feature, ‘Joker.’ That film seemed to live and die depending on how well Phoenix performed. Here we have a similar case. If a lesser actor had been cast in the role of Harley Quinn this review would be very different. Robbie was one of the bright spots in, ‘Suicide Squad,’ and not only does she build on her performance from that film, she improves upon it as well. Following the story through her perspective can seem like a fever dream at times. Carrying over her same skill set from the previous film, Robbie presents this Quinn as one that looks for freedom and is willing to do anything to achieve it. Whether it is blowing up ACE Chemicals plant or teaming up with the good guys, Quinn is striving to make her own story in Gotham. One thing that becomes easy to overlook at times is that Quinn is a villain. She is by no means the main villain of the film, but she does still open fire on a police station and kidnap a prisoner. The rest of her actions that include breaking the law are treated as teaching moments as she robs a grocery store with the same girl she broke out of prison. While I would argue this is Robbies’ best role, she has had finer movies come out within the past few years, some of which I’ve included on my ‘Top Ten’ lists for those years. From, ‘I, Tonya’ (2017) to ‘Mary Queen of Scotts’ (2018) and ‘Bombshell (2019) she has been in a plethora of great movies that have showcased her acting abilities. On two occasions she was nominated for an Academy Award. The first was for Best Leading Actress, (I, Tonya) while the second was for Best Supporting Actress (Bombshell).
The main bad guy is played by Ewan McGregor, who has had a very busy schedule as of late. He has been in three well-received films over the course of the past three years, ‘Christopher Robin,’ ‘Doctor Sleep’ and now ‘Birds of Prey.’ It is certainly a different take on the character Black Mask than what comic fans are used to seeing. However, given how well McGregor performs I don’t think that matters much. Moreover, if you’re coming into this with little knowledge of the books, then his performance will seem even better. I will say this, McGregor manages to play the first villain that I have actually felt an ounce of fear of in many years when it comes to comic book movies. Part of his character is the run-of-the-mill gangster looking to take over Gotham, but the way in which he dispatches his victims sends chills down your spine. It was a method that I had not seen since Rob Zombie featured it in both, ‘House of a 1000 Corpses’ (2003) and its sequel. But it takes more than the fear of how he kills someone to make an intimidating villain. One of the reasons the Joker is frightening is because you never know what he is capable of, he can do almost anything. That is where McGregor takes it to the next level. He gives Black Mask a bit of a childish persona, almost as though he doesn’t understand what he’s doing at times. That is what makes him scary. As Alfred once said, ‘some men…can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with.’
One of the other stars of this production is its screenwriter, Christina Hodson. Hodson, like Yan has not had much experience in feature films, but when it comes to action films she has been very successful. The highlight of her filmography thus far is the 2018 picture, ‘Bumblebee,’ which currently sits at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. She has been very busy with DC as of late, not only did she write the screenplay for, ‘Birds of Prey,’ but she is also set to pen a Barbara Gordon/Batgirl film as well as a Flash picture, all three of these films will be set in the DC Extended Universe. Whenever a screenplay goes undeveloped it can be posted and ranked on what is called the Black List. For Horror films there is a similar one known as the Blood List, but for Hodson we will only be looking at the former. Interestingly, three of her scripts have ended up on the Black List, (Seed, Shut-In, The Eden Project), showing how promising of a writer she can be.
I loved this film, more than any other I have seen this year so far, and that includes ‘1917.’ Due to how poorly it is doing at the box office, chances are this will be written off as a flop and one of the worst films of 2020. Please do not believe any of the headlines that suggest that. ‘Birds of Prey’ is a delightful movie filled with action, bright colors and enough movie and comic book references to make your head spin. See it for its acting. See it for its visuals. See it because you’re an action fan. But most of all, see it, because it is a good film.
Until next time.
Dennis Campbell is a Circulation Clerk at the Willowick Library.