Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)
Directed by: Cathy Yan
Written by: Christina Hodson
Starring: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, and Ewan McGregor
In my college days, many was the night where, fueled by an unhealthy amount of caffeine, I would stay awake until the wee hours of dawn watching anime. My tastes were broad, between the gun-wielding intensity of Black Lagoon and Michiko and Hatchin, and the madness of works like Kill La Kill or Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt. One could accuse them of being style over substance, but that would miss the point. The style was the substance, and to this day, nothing fully captures the same overwhelming delight those series filled me with.
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a film that recaptures some of that manic energy I felt from those works. Whatever imperfections it has are buttressed by its style, its acting, its filmmaking, and, strangely enough, its heart. Underneath the blood and gore, plethora of curse words, and crude humor, Birds of Prey is a very charming film.
Its charms begin with the fully animated prologue, where Harley (Margot Robbie) details her life’s ups, downs, and heartaches, culminating with her recent messy breakup with the Joker. It’s a painful experience, both literally and figuratively, for Harley, but it comes with a newfound sense of freedom for her. A sense of freedom that includes gunshots, explosions, broken bones, and a team-up with the titular Birds of Prey (Jurnee Smollett, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Rosie Perez).
Make no mistake: despite the title, this is Harley Quinn’s show through and through, with the Birds playing a supporting role to Harley’s “fantabulous emancipation.” It would be disappointing, were it not for the fact that Margot Robbie is just so damned good in the role. Her performance is an endearing marriage of Arleen Sorkin’s Harley from Batman: The Animated Series and Lori Petty’s Tank Girl. By alternate points buffoonish, scrappy, intelligent, and funny, she could have carried this film on her own if it were necessary.
Fortunately, it isn’t. The aforementioned Birds (Smollett’s Black Canary, Winstead’s Huntress, and Perez’s Renee Montoya) are uniformly excellent. While we’re given ample opportunity to see their fighting prowess on display, it’s the actors’ chemistry that ties them together. While it’s the circumstances of a young pickpocket (Ella Jay Bosco) that forces them together, their synergy as a team keeps us intrigued. But none of this would be possible without a compelling villain. Something that the movie has in spades with Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis, a.k.a., Black Mask. His performance is a devil of a time. McGregor’s Sionis is by alternate points short-tempered, charming, violent, funny, and frighteningly misogynistic. One has to wonder how much scenery McGregor had to pick out of his teeth in between takes.
It’s then unfortunate that we comparatively spend so little time with the Birds. We are given enough time to understand and empathize with them as characters, but it’s more of the actors’ charisma that carries them than a real emotional connection.
Which also speaks to the strengths of Cathy Yan’s direction and Christina Hodson’s screenplay that I found myself as compelled as I was. What I felt in the movie theater was the same feeling I had hunched over my laptop screen at 2 AM in college. A mad joy that left me eager for more.