Birds of Prey review: Joyously chaotic
Ivan Radford | On 24, Apr 2020
Director: Cathy Yan
Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Jurnee Smollett-Bell
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“It was the closure I needed. A fresh start.” That’s one Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) as she parts way with The Joker and strikes out on her own. It’s a conscious move to separate from the toxic, abusive partner that undermined her for far too long – and a defiant step for DC Comics after several big screen misfires.
They didn’t come much bigger than Suicide Squad, a bad-guys-as-the-good-guys spin-off that desperately wanted to be anarchic but ended up feeling disappointingly machine-tooled. Birds of Prey – or, to give it its full title, “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” – feels anarchic in a way that feels as chaotic as its title, leaning into its hyperactive leading lady’s personality and using that to propel the whole thing along like a fairground ride gone wrong.
That’s evident from the off, which fast-forwards and rewinds through all the important exposition – “Mr. J”, tellingly, never appears in what is undoubtedly Harley’s story, with the film more willing to devote time to her love of a bacon and egg sandwich. But once word gets out that Harley is no longer with the Joker, her immunity goes, and she finds herself under threat from would-be criminal kingpin Roman (Ewan McGregor), aka. Black Mask, who has a penchant for torturing people and peeling off their faces. (No, this isn’t a 12A family blockbuster.)
And so Harley assembles the titular gang of woman who have little in common other than they all have Roman as a common enemy. There’s Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), the singer in Roman’s nightclub who has more clout to her vocal chords than first appears, there’s Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a vigilante with a hidden past and a serious problem with anyone who wants to know about it, and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), the last cop in the town who isn’t corrupt and is determined to bring some justice to its criminal underworld.
They all get caught up in the fate of young thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), and the hunt for a valuable diamond. But the truth is that the plot doesn’t really matter – Birds of Prey is a joy just watching its all-female ensemble interact. Screenwriter Christina Hodson cues up amusing exchanges for the group, but they’re at their best when in action, dispensing blows to bad guys with a playful sense of humour and a genuine feel of teamwork. In an age of superhero crossovers, it’s rare to find such enjoyment in watching characters help each other out, and Winstead, Perez and Smollett-Bell all find the right balance between their independent resilience and their pleasure in finding like-minded individuals. Robbie, though, is undoubtedly the star and she relishes being let off the franchise hook to do her own thing.
Director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) throws them together with the glee to match, conjuring up a remarkable climactic set piece in an abandoned amusement park that’s as weird as it is exciting. Some superb group choreography and absurd set design feeds into the manic camerawork, layering the haphazard violence with style, sass and colour to spare. It’s the best looking DC film since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, and all the better because it looks absolutely nothing like it – the film even finds the time for a brief musical sequence that channels Marilyn Monroe and Moulin Rouge, the kind of surprising touch that helps make up for the familiar, relatively boilerplate villain.
Vibrant, fast-paced and unexpected, the result is a big budget actioner held together with sticky tape and sheer energy. Bringing closure to a character who was wasted in Suicide Squad, it feels like a fresh start not just for her but for DC’s whole cinematic universe.
Birds of Prey is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription.