Let me first start with a fair warning: THIS MOVIE IS NOT SUITABLE FOR LOSERS. If you’re planning to get drunk and buy a ticket in hopes to watch Harley Quinn’s trunk ride up her butt or Black Canary’s boobs bouncing in slow motion, this movie is not for you. Like, at all. You see, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is actually cool. And kickass. And a flipping good time at the movies. It’s bursting with personality and attitude and infinitely rewatchable. It’s sexy — oh, it’s really really sexy — but not in a ‘let’s give 14-year-old boys material to jack off to’ kind of way. It’s sexy the same way Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks beating the crap out of each other in a steel cage is sexy.
A lot of movies make you laugh. But a good comedy is more than that. It has a story you can follow and characters you come to care about. If it’s an action-comedy, then the fights and the pewpewpews need to be of note as well. Suicide Squad nailed the characters. But has anyone figured out what the movie is about? Or why Joker kept popping in and out of the movie? Or why Jared Leto sent dead rats and used condoms to his co-workers? Or why Enchantress was dancing like a two-dollar shop version of Deepika Padukone in Bajirao Mastani? Birds of Prey, on the other hand, hits the mark on all aspects. It’s everything
David Ayer’s Warner Bros committee project Suicide Squad should have been.
The story is simple and centred around a MacGuffin. There’s a diamond that contains vital information to the secret wealth of an old crime family. Or something. Everybody, from Harley Quinn to Gotham’s police force to the villainous Roman Sionis are all on the hunt for this piece of treasure for various reasons, which is now in possession of a little girl who at one point swallows the diamond wholesale. Director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) pack this premise with smart jokes, slick action sequences and plenty of double-crossing and betrayals to keep the film moving like a Japanese bullet train.
I love how Hodson uses Harley Quinn to play around with the structure. Most of Birds of Prey plays out non-linearly. Things happen and then the movie cuts back hours or days ago to fill in the blanks. At one point, you see Harley get surrounded by cops and mercenaries. A couple of scenes after that we see Harley breaking into a police station. So, what happened in between? You’ll soon find out. It makes sense from an in-story perspective. Harley Quinn is full time crazy, part-time drunk. So she, as she informs us in the hilarious opening voiceover, is going to tell us the story however the heck she pleases. From a writing standpoint, it allows for the film to always be in exhilarating motion. Instead of introducing the characters one by one first and then only the story, we get both simultaneously. We get a kickass action sequence, followed by a rewind informing us how we arrived at that point.
To help fully realise her vision, Cathy Yan worked together with the stunt company 87eleven on all the action scenes — 87eleven is founded by the modern master of stunt coordination, Chad Stahelski, who is, of course, the director of the John Wick franchise. The choreography is brilliant. Plenty of wide shots are used which allows us to completely bask in the glorious bone-cracking and neck-snapping. But it’s not just the choreography and direction, it’s also the style. Birds of Prey has attitude. It has a loud voice. And like its primary character, it’s unabashedly bonkers and bursting in colour.
This seeps into the action blocks as well, each unique and memorable. There are fights in bars, fights in and around cars, fights in a corridor of a prison cell with malfunctioning sprinklers. At one point Harley Quinn starts blasting police officers with a shotgun loaded with multi-coloured smoke bombs and confetti which explodes on the big screen like a bag of Fruity Pebbles mixed with flying fat cops. At another point, Huntress rides a motorcycle while Harley Quinn uses a rope to hang on like she’s a water-skier at an Extreme Sports competition, before being whipped onto the car in front of her. There’s also the fantastic climactic block that sees all our leading ladies punch, kick and shoot their way out of trouble in a carnival as a bunch of baddies come at them like a horde of White Walkers. When Harley Quinn passes Black Canary a hair tie and Black Canary proceeds to tie her hair (that has been getting in her face which tends to happen when one has long hair) before proceeding to drop kick an a*shole, I high fived the stranger next to me.
But what the movie is really about, is the emancipation part. Harley Quinn has just broken up with the Joker. It’s about a bunch of ladies trapped, if not by the system, if not by a man, then by the cage that’s been built around their minds, and are vying to break free. Vying for independence. At the centre of it is Harley Quinn, who has just broken up with the Joker after finally realising that he’s an egoistic possessive dick. But she doesn’t want to make her new relationship status public as being the Joker’s girlfriend comes with a lot of benefits such as the freedom to snap a guy’s leg in half without facing retaliation from the man’s boss who happens to be one of the biggest gangsters in Gotham. Nobody dares to mess with the Clown Prince of Crime’s lady. She’s conflicted. She wants people to know (and herself to know) that she’s capable of being her own woman without The Joker by her side. Struggling with her breakup and her internal conflict, Harley resorts to drinking, partying and eating, sometimes simultaneously, all in binge-format. You get the feeling that she ends her nights pressed against the wall in a stinky alleyway, panties around her ankles no thanks to some ugly bastard.
Every day she wakes up with a deep feeling of regret and pain. It’s this dark hole that she’s desperately trying to claw her way out from. Harley Quinn was awesome in Suicide Squad but that’s more to do with Margot Robbie’s tremendous work as the character rather than the writing. Here, Robbie is working with good material. Yan and Hodson understand the blood and tissue that make up her character. If in Suicide Squad we get a shot of Harley Quinn putting on a T-shirt as the men around her ogle, here we get a shot of Harley tilting her head upwards, emptying a can of cheese into her mouth. Robbie shines! She plays the character with the right amount of spunk, vulnerability and kookiness to entrancing effect.
There’s also Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a brilliant cop that hasn’t received her due diligence because of the misogynistic landscape of the police force. She’s never taken seriously because of her gender. This has pushed her to become an alcohol abuser. Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), the most powerful out of all the characters, has a killer voice (literally) but she’s afraid to use it. She wants more out of her life — you can see it in her eyes as she pours her heart out singing ‘It’s a Man’s World’ at Black Mask’s club — but her past has taught her to keep her head down and do as she’s told to survive the cruelty that plagues Gotham City. Hence, she gets pushed around by Black Mask, who calls her his little birdie.
Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a role you’ve been dying to see her in since Scott Pilgrim vs The World) is an absolute effing badass who’s single-minded and on a personal revenge mission. In fact, she’s so badass — one moment we see her take on 4 men with guns in 0.2 seconds with a crossbow like she’s Legolas on steroids — that her only weakness is her inability to introduce superhero nickname in time. A funny comedic throughline to undercut the badassery. She comes off as cold, but that coldness is a mask she puts on because of childhood trauma. There’s a quick but poignant moment where she passes Cassandra Cain a toy car. Cassandra Cain, who’s played wonderfully Ella Jay Basco delivers some of the funniest lines in the film.
Black Mask is perhaps the weakest of the characters. He doesn’t get much to do besides be a flamboyant insufferable prick 700% of the time and his ending is rather anti-climactic (though, admittedly it was done to shocking effect). But Cathy Yan combats this by casting Ewan McGregor who chews the scenery around him like a starving child who’s just been given a bag of potato chips.
What prevents the film from being great is the lack of small moments of pure emotion. I’m thinking about that brilliant scene in Guardians of the Galaxy where Groot says “we are Groot” and you stand up, clap your hands and scream “WE ARE GROOT!” as you bawl your eyes out like it’s the end of Titanic while your Tinder date hides her face in her hands in embarrassment. Birds of Prey is so quick paced that there’s barely any time for deeper emotions to brew. The characters feel certain things but we don’t feel it with them.
That said, Birds of Prey is everything you want from a summer popcorn movie (and I don’t mean that derogatorily). It’s a blast from start to finish and introduces you to a whole bunch of characters that I can’t wait to go on on more ass-kicking adventures with.
Birds of Prey is currently playing in Malaysian cinemas.