Release Date: Feb. 7, 202o
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director: Cathy Yan
Writer: Christina Hodson
Release Format: Theatrical
What Am I Watching?
After seeing Birds of Prey, I spent a good while thinking about what kind of movie it was. It’s not a superhero movie, despite being part of the DC Cinematic Universe. I think what it most closely resembles is a heist film, a la Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, or Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
Highly stylized, bombastic, and juxtaposing darkness with comedy and bright lights, Birds of Prey is fast-paced and fun. The focus shifts between plot threads, Margot Robbie’s squeaky Brooklyn accent provides constant voiceover and action freezes for cue card-like on-screen writing as all the characters, ultimately, search for a diamond in the belly of a young girl—all genre hallmarks.
Unlike those films which must have inspired Birds of Prey, there isn’t much under the shiny veneer. Although director Cathy Yan is juggling far fewer balls than there were in a Snatch or an Ocean’s Eleven, it feels like the entire thing would crumble into nonsense without Quinn’s voiceover continually explaining what’s going on.
Characters and Actors
The actors are the bright spot, though it’s always a mistake to try and introduce this many new characters and backstories in one movie. Superhero films have, for years, been failing to juggle the desire to give their characters a backstory with the need to keep the story moving.
Margot Robbie gives her all to the performance, and between the (slightly extra-edgy, Leto-esque) look, the sound, and the expressions, she nails the role. She ping-pongs between over-the-top comic bits and darkness in a way that wouldn’t have worked without total commitment.
Ewan McGregor relishes his role as Roman Sionus/Black Mask. Like Robbie, he digs in, and it pays off. He’s eccentric and quirky, at times silly and intimidating. That said, there are about three dozen DC villains I’d pick to put in a movie before Black Mask, and we never see him do anything in his villainous alter ego other than stand there, which muddies everything up. What’s the point in the whole mask thing? It’s not to hide his identity; he announces who he is while wearing it.
Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seems to get less devoted screen time than the rest of the Birds, which is a shame because she is the most interesting. Winstead brings a very different energy than the rest of the cast, which is refreshing. The movie deals with her background through the most hamfisted case of tired exposition, but her present-day actions are entertaining, and I’d be interested in seeing more of the character.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Dinah Lance/Black Canary is also entertaining. Unfortunately, she has the opposite problems of Huntress. She appears frequently, but while the other characters each get a voiceover background info drop a la Into the Spider-Verse’s “Let’s do this one more time’,” she, for some reason, does not. As the only character in Birds of Prey with a superpower (the origin and her attitude toward it are just never addressed), it’s needed more in her case than anyone else’s, so that decision is mind-boggling. Let me figure out on my own or through context clues why the cop has a bad attitude and why the assassin is seeking revenge, but give me some idea what’s going on with the lady who can do supernatural things.
Rosie Perez didn’t do a lousy job as Detective Renee Montoya, but I do think it was bad casting. She just seemed like a character from a different movie. Other characters keep saying she talks like an ’80s movie cop, which is true, but lampshading it doesn’t solve the issue. Beyond that, I’m not sure what they were going for. Perez is 55, and the original partner they show for her (played by 70-year-old Steven Williams) is even older. However, the almost-two-decade-younger Ali Wong plays her ex, and she’s running around in the streets, chasing people and fighting. While the other three Birds have origin stories that deal with supervillains, superpowers, and assassins, she seems to be just an aging detective transplanted from a buddy cop movie. As presented, it just feels like a weird character that doesn’t quite add up played by an actress that wasn’t quite right for the part.
Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) both strike me as characters who were chosen because filmmakers wanted to attach a known character name to a role they had, not because they wanted to use those characters. The Zsasz of the movie is a generic henchman, in addition to abandoning the character’s iconic look, and Cain seems to have nothing to do with the Cain of the comics except being an orphan.
Russian author Anton Chekov advocated the principle that any plot element to which a writer draws attention needs to be brought back or resolved later—commonly known as Chekov’s Gun. In other words, if the audience sees a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it better be fired in the third. Otherwise, it shouldn’t be there.
Birds of Prey covers the wall in guns that it never bothers to fire. Harley goes to an exotic pet store to adopt a hyena (“Bruce”) that never ends up doing anything. The film spends precious time introducing an old Taiwanese man who then betrays Harley. When she confronts him, he says sorry and drives off into the distance, never to be heard from again—directly preceding that same scene, a cop knocks on the door and disappears into the ether as well.
The film’s McGuffin is the Bertinelli Diamond, and a stone etched with the location of a former crime family’s fortune. During the denouncement, Harley pawns it for a stack of cash, and the fact that its true value lies in the laser etching on its surface is never again mentioned.
At the movie’s climax, before the final showdown between Quinn and Sionus, Rosie Perez gives Harley a gun with one bullet. All four of the Birds taken pains to discuss how they have no ammunition left, and that’s their only shot. Quinn even disarms several toughs with guns but ignores their firearms to keep her One-Shot Gun. Then, she just shoots a statue and keeps firing blanks as if she didn’t realize she was out of bullets, while they dispatch the villain another way. What was the point of focusing on the gun for so long? Chekov must be rolling in his grave.
The writing in Birds of Prey is messy and makes one think it’s full of extant pieces of larger plot threads that got cut.
The Emancipation of Harley Quinn
Birds of Prey is ostensibly a girl group movie—that’s the point of the namesake group of women and the meaning of the film’s unwieldy subtitle. But even in a movie in which he doesn’t appear, the Joker looms large. Harley and other characters evoke his name so consistently that I almost expected a cameo. Now, you can’t tell Harley Quinn’s story without the Joker, but there aren’t many ways to make a film less interesting than to make it so significant about something that isn’t part of the film. Add in the fact that Suicide Squad was a dud, and the recent Joker movie featured a completely different style of Joker played by a different actor, and it just further confuses the whole thing.
That said, when it comes to emancipation, it struck me how, despite the character’s sex symbol status and the fact that she’s rarely wearing a great deal, Birds of Prey doesn’t really sexualize Harley a great deal. Characters make comments, but there aren’t tracking shots of her legs or butt closeups. She never shows off cleavage. To an even higher degree, the rest of the Birds are largely covered up. Whether that’s reflective of a shift in studio priorities, the guiding hand of a female director, Robbie’s role as a producer, or something else entirely, I don’t know, but it’s noteworthy. Birds of Prey managed to balance high style and revealing costumes without turning its women into eye candy.
Birds of Prey: Verdict
Why does this movie exist? I don’t have an answer to that question, and I think that’s a big part of the reason it’s less than the sum of its parts. If it had more of a driving thread and some tighter editing, strong acting could make it a solid-but-unspectacular action-comedy. Instead, I left the theatre, wondering what the point was. Throughout the movie, decisions are made for no apparent reason, and that seems to hold true for the movie as a whole. I don’t know that it was rushed, but it feels like it was.
- Robbie captures Quinn
- Good acting, particularly from Robbie and McGregor
- Showy funhouse fight scene is a good time
- Huntress and Black Canary are interesting new faces
- What’s the point of this movie?
- Messy writing leaves loose ends everywhere
- There’s never time to introduce this many characters—if you’re going to try, this is not how to do it
- Black Mask was a boring choice for villain
- Joker, Joker, Joker