Review: Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (breathe) has many positive elements, and some of the best action in recent DC films, but just lacks that extra depth that might have made it soar (no pun intended).

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) breaks up with the (mercifully unseen) Joker, and has an unfortunately timed meltdown, as most of Gotham wants her dead, led by mobster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Quinn’s penchant for trouble sees her cross paths with a number of other women – all of whom have more in common than they think, and who might work well together rather than against each other.

Of the terrible DC Universe films, only Wonder Woman and Joker (less so the latter) emerge with credit. Suicide Squad was near the bottom of this proverbial shitpile, and Margot Robbie – who clearly enjoyed playing Harley Quinn – decided to use her clout to get a sequel of sorts made (wisely ditching the abysmal Jared Leto).

This gives us a female led, scripted and directed extravaganza that’s very good, but might have been better. Director Cathy Yan does nothing much wrong, bringing a zest and zip that mirrors the lead’s day-glo, sociopathic tendencies. Whether it’s bone crunching, expertly shot action (no shakey cams here!), or skincrawling tension in more unsavoury scenes, Yan has a strong style – it’s more that Christina Hodson’s otherwise great script feels cut or edited down.

Her clever acknowledgement that we’ve an untrustworthy, scatty protagonist sets the film up well, with cleverly spliced flashbacks, animation and a goldfish style approach to exposition (one flashback starts “four minutes ago”). The early stages make an impact, and it’s only once Harley’s sent the most expensive break up message ever that the plot starts to struggle.

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This could be down to multiple protagonists – their stories do feel interesting but some are poorly served at the expense of others, while the antagonists are watered down from what could have been really nasty, timely male villains. It all feels like DC has had too much of a say – I don’t know if that’s the case, but it felt like that. There’s restraint when the film might have gone further (it’s a 15, which doesn’t stop other movies achieving more edge).

As the story continues, this feels more pronounced, and it’s a shame. I hesitate to mention the idea of a separate edit (#FuckOffWithTheSnyderCut), but in this case it feels like it could have been bigger and better. The film works very well technically and from a visual standpoint however, because these elements interact perfectly with Hodson’s script riffing heavily on Harley’s instinctual and frantic personality.
Matthew Libatique’s cinematography paints a more diverse, tangible Gotham that’s not all just deprivation (Joker) or sleek skyscrapers (the Nolan trilogy). Bright and vibrant colours pop out throughout, and editors Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff do a great job with Yan of letting everything breathe without frantic cuts. Daniel Pemberton’s score is a little lost behind the ton of period and modern music dropped in – it’s a shame but you can see the Guardians of the Galaxy vibe they’re going for here. Every fight has a different track, but after a while (and via some unfortunately overused songs) becomes a bit tiresome.

Robbie is obviously centre stage, both necessarily and yet to the detriment of the wider cast. She clearly enjoys playing madcap Harley, and paints the dichotomy at the character’s heart – while she’s the film’s “hero” and has a newly sympathetic edge, she’s definitely more anti-hero or slightly reformed villain.

The other female cast are either shortchanged or given too much time when their stories aren’t so interesting. Rosie Perez’s hardbitten, cliche loving Detective Renee Montoya is a really interesting character, but is left behind by the rest; while Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress is an enigmatic, mysterious killer until she isn’t – at which point, the actress is surprisingly central to the comedy, but deserved more time onscreen.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Dinah Lance and Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain receive more attention, but are less interesting. Smollet-Bell’s Dinah is all steely resolve and strength, but little that’s interesting is done with the time spent on her. Basco’s annoying, snarky kid performance is exactly what it says on the tin, but that’s not her fault – it’s more that the film focuses too much on her at the expense of the others.

Both Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina clearly relish playing such a pair of scumbags, and yet they appear neutered – the film already has the 15 certificate, so it should really go for broke to hype up how wrong these two are. McGregor is basically going all out with his performance – and yet only has a couple of opportunities to show Sionis’ truly nasty side. It’s a very different role, so it’s a shame he isn’t given more time to revel in it.

Messina, playing one of Batman’s more disturbingly authentic villains in the serial killer Zsasz, is skin crawlingly weird at points but at other times strangely restrained, despite being a complete psychopath. Lean in more into these elements, and the film would have been all the stronger for having a bit more peril. Instead it’s all resolved fairly bloodlessly for the heroines – risks aren’t taken, and the edge has been taken off.

I did enjoy this, but it’s clear it could have been better, though how much of that is down to the expectations/straitjacket of DC is entirely up for debate. It’s at least a refreshingly vibrant superhero film that owes its more successful elements to its female perspective.

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