Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Director: Cathy Yan
Writers: Christina Hodson, Paul Dini, Bruce Timm
Staring: Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco
Release Date: February 7, 2020

Self-isolation has finally nagged at me enough where I bit the bullet and paid a rather large rental fee for a new movie. Today’s viewing of choice was the highly talked about and anticipated Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020), which I will be referring to as Birds Of Prey going forward. The latest addition to the DC cinematic universe was released on February 7, 2020 and welcomed with disappointing box office results. Warner Bros. even changed the name of the film to Harley Quinn: Bird Of Prey in movie theaters across the country as part of a last minute marketing.

Birds Of Prey begins following Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and her emotional turmoil following her nasty breakup with The Joker. She announces her breakup in a colorful and bombastic way, resulting in her protection from the criminal underworld of Gotham vanishing. Many enemies come out of the woodwork, including Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), otherwise known as Black Mask.

Harley evades capture from the police and numerous criminals until she is eventually apprehended by Sionis. This is where the plotting framework of Bird Of Prey outlines itself. Harley agrees to find a diamond that has a code imprinted on it that unlocks a fortune from a massacred crime family. Sionis wants the diamond to help build his criminal empire now that the Joker appears to be out of the picture, so Harley is given a limited amount of time to achieve the mission.

Harley, and a series of other criminal personalities, are put to task finding a young girl by the name of Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). The young pick-pocketer got possession of the diamond after swiping it off Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), Sionis’ ego-boosting right-hand man. Harley and Cain get linked up, and eventually their paths collide with three other female heroines: Huntress, Black Canary and Renee Montoya. The unlikely foursome must rely on each other to take down Black Mask.

As a spiritual sequel to Suicide Squad (2016), Birds Of Prey shares the same unique style of exposition that its predecessor had. There are graphics that come up on the screen while Harley is exfoliating the background of each character. The screenplay has Harley breaking the fourth wall, acknowledging flashbacks and being self-aware when details are absurd or murky.

The story that is told throughout Birds Of Prey is meant to be secondary to the characters in the movie. It’s like the bobsled itself while Harley Quinn, Huntress, Black Canary and Renee Montoya are the ones riding in it. Harley is at the helm steering the entire fast-paced adventure, but she can only do so when she is on screen. There is a palpable difference to Birds Of Prey when its focus is on its titular character compared to everyone else. Harley is exactly what you expect…but her fellow heroes are all held short shrift.

What’s most infuriating about the more minor characters being limited is that Birds Of Prey still took a long time to get going. The build up to the final plot itself is booby-trapped by character exposition and set pieces. There were mini vignettes that were like spin-off comic book stories. The sidetracking takes the way from that magnetism of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. The fact such a talented and stunning actress truly goes gung-ho for such a depraved and maniacal character is remarkable, but her charisma is not enough to carry the duller moments.

Of all the secondary characters, Renne Montaya (Rosie Perez) shines the most with her backstory. The worst of the bunch is The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who randomly appears on her motorcycle and then acts like a…fool? To tell a story about how badass and vengeful a killer she trained to become and then make her braindead when it comes to social interactions seems like a twisted decision. It did not work well for the character or the movie.

When the trailer for Birds Of Prey first dropped, it was easy and popular to be impressed with what Ewan McGregor was doing as Roman Sionis/Black Mask. As the movie unfolded, the sense of optimism started to suffer. Again, the concept of protagonist vs. antagonist is not primary in this movie, so it is not the end of the world. But we can hope for more, right? They try and build up Sionis’ malevolence with a rather testy negotiation and a truly degrading interaction with a female patron of his club. While the scene with the women is truly revolting, the scene sticks out like Hummer parked at environmental conference. There is a small bit of dialogue that pushes the plot along at the start of the scene, but after that its just performance art. Your attention is drawn to it and you’ll end up walking into a car (metaphorically) in your head still thinking about what it was doing there.  

A surprisingly strong aspect of Birds Of Prey are its action sequences. For a movie that had some difficulty pacing itself, when the violence picks up, so does the entertainment value. The final climatic battle is nicely staged in the unique setting of an abandoned amusement park. All the characters can play with the environment and flourish under their own spotlight for a bit. The music choice of “Barracuda” is a nice accompaniment and while I may now know what Huntress’ crossbow makes the sound of a shotgun when cocked, I still like that little moment. The Black Canary “shoe change” comment is a nice bit of comedic relief, followed up by the hair tie exchange. It is also rather fitting it ends in a rather emasculating way, being this is a female empowerment movie.

The other big action sequence takes place in the police department when Harley is first trying to get Cassandra Cain. This scene is more colorful and playful than the movie’s finale, but it is hampered by the sheer STUPIDITY of the cops in the station. Yes, this is a comic book movie. Yes, there needs to be a suspension of disbelief. But the entire time Harley is hurling paint and bean bags, the only thing one can think is: “This is a police station, right? With cops? With Guns? And theoretically courageous, smart people?” I enjoyed the shootout, but there was a haze over it, as well as an answerable question about how Harley and Cassandra got out of the station and into a car unfettered.

In quick summation. The story of Birds Of Prey is not complex and frankly unimportant. The story is meant to highlight the characters, and in particular Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie is fully immersed in her effort to bring the fan favorite to life, but the lack of depth and substance provided to the minor characters hampers the experience. The comedy throughout the movie is uneven at times, and Harley’s ability to break the fourth wall is not as seamless as Ryan Reynold’s doing so in Deadpool (2016), but the format choice does not hinder the movie. The most surprising aspect of Birds Of Prey are its action set pieces, which is a hard thing for first-time blockbuster directing Cathy Yan to pull off.

In terms of where Birds Of Prey stands compared to the most recent DC Universe movies…here are my rankings since 2013.

1. Shazam (2019): B+

2. Wonder Woman (2017): B

3. Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020): C+

4. Aquaman (2018): C

5. Justice League (2017): D

6. Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016): D

7. Man Of Steel (2013): D

8. Suicide Squad (2016): F+

STANKO RATING: C+ (3.0/5 Stars)

“Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” IMDB
“Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” Rotten Tomatoes

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