Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn Review – A Bizarre Bonkers Bloody Brutal Ball of a Film

2020 is a landmark year for superhero films, with four of the major superhero film releases being directed by women. Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn kicks off this history making event with gusto, and can proudly lay claim to the fact that it’s the only one both written and directed by women, with Christina Hodson and Cathy Yan respectively behind the creative wheel for this DC flick.

For anyone who skipped Suicide Squad (namely, this writer), Birds of Prey kicks off with a brief scene setting rundown as to why Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn breaking up with the Joker is important. The toxic relationship between Joker and Harley Quinn being torn apart is a welcome reminder that abusive, manipulative, controlling boyfriends can quite positively go take a long walk off a short pier. As the ultimate act of ‘burn all of his shit to the ground’, Harley Quinn destroys the ACME Chemicals facility where she sacrificed her past self to become the Joker’s servant. This act announces to all of Gotham that this iconic, unshakeable couple are no more, and Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) and just about all of the street thugs around, want their piece of Harley Quinn.

Consequence meets plot when Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) nicks a valuable diamond (read: MacGuffin), swallowing it, putting Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), The Crossbow Killer The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), plus Harley Quinn, on her trail.

The main takeaway from Birds of Prey is that it proudly obnoxious fun, so much so that it doesn’t care if you’re not on board with the hyper-caffeinated, slightly boozy vibe it’s slinging. And gosh, does it sling some style.

Matthew Libatique captures the energy of Harley Quinn brilliantly, making every sugary sweet colour pop and shine with his cinematography. Needle drops galore fit the mood perfectly, with notable inclusions of Spiderbait’s cover of Black Betty and the always welcome Barracuda appearing to show Captain Marvel how best to apply music to action.

Additionally, the fight sequences are positively energetic, with every punch, stab, and arrow shot landing with intended bloody impact. A word of warning, if you’re squeamish about bones being broken, then be prepared for some of the most brutal leg breaking moments in a major motion picture ever. After Birds of Prey is done with you, you’ll be so desensitized to flailing limbs that you’ll be able to queue up a broken-bone compilation video on YouTube with no trouble.

Embracing the colourful style to the extreme is Ewan McGregor as the big bad. His camp-to-the-max Black Mask is darkly enticing, making anyone with a heartbeat swoon at the idea of being his side piece like the lucky Chris Messina is. McGregor is devilishly committed to the role, and just like the rest of the cast, it’s absolutely clear he had a joy of a time making Birds of Prey.

The costume design by Erin Benach needs to be applauded for adorning McGregor with a wardrobe full of outfits that would immediately make any man a sex icon. Sure, it helps that McGregor was already a sex icon, but Benach’s costumes know perfectly how to amplify his finest attributes. In one sequence, Black Mask and Zsasz are lazing about in a nightclub, both wearing spot-on eye shadow that just oozes lust and enticement, and Benach pairs the slicked back hair of McGregor with this simply divine black silk top. It doesn’t take much to swoon over Ewan McGregor (I mean, have you seen the man?), but the female-gaze makes sure that literally everyone in the audience will be left squirming in their seats with giddiness.

In fact, all the costumes are to die for, working as grounded eye candy morsels that compensates for the oft-prescribed ‘CGI-heavy’ extravangza that superhero films are usually beholden to. In many ways, Birds of Prey embraces the concept that Joker set forward – these films don’t need to be splashy, obvious-effects driven events. Sometimes the tangible, real nature of them is what makes them all the more entertaining and exciting. The fact that the practicality of the costumes becomes a welcome joke during the climax (if The Incredibles showed the problems of having a cape, then Birds of Prey reminds the importance of having your hair tied back during a fight) shows how intensely feminine this film is.  

Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is a positively joyous creation of cotton-candy confection. She’s a bisexual, left leaning, Bernie voting, vagina-having super villain, and she embraces all facets of her personality completely. Jurnee Smollett-Bell is a treat, working as the grounded character in the mix that gets to carry a few welcome emotional beats. Rosie Perez is always enjoyable, and she devours every scene she has completely. Ella Jay Basco is a genuine treat as well, showcasing a Julian Dennison-level performance that threatens to steal the show from Robbie, and it’s clear that Robbie would quite happily let her if the narrative required it. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays deadpan perfectly, embracing the driest of dry comedic elements of her character.

Whatever Warner Bros. is doing with their superhero catalogue, it’s clear that with Joker, Shazam!, and now Birds of Prey, they’re onto something good. This headfirst dive into style and substance allows for a welcome amusement park for exceptional actors to play around in. This is capital F fun, with the emphasis on the F U directed at those who will seek to nitpick and needlessly criticise because it doesn’t meet their pigeonhole concept of whatever this kind of film “should” be. To them, I join hands with everyone associated with Birds of Prey and quite happily say, on your bike, shuffle on, go kick rocks elsewhere.

This is right here, bizarre, bonkers, bloody and brutal fun.

Director: Cathy Yan

Cast: Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Jurnee Smollett-Bell

Writer: Christina Hodson

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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