Glitter Guns, Girl Gangs & Good Times In Birds of Prey
Reviewing Harley Quinn's Solo Big Screen Debut
March 20, 2020 at 8:59 am
In the latest film installment in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn, freed from her mad love with the Joker, hits the city streets as a fantabulously emancipated single gal.
But, what’s the Clown Princess of Gotham to do when the Suicide Squad is disbanded and her toxic ‘ship has sailed? How about join a badass girl gang of some of Gotham’s fiercest heroines, vigilantes, and antiheroines known as the Birds of Prey to save a teen miscreant from a crime boss known as Black Mask!?
Set right after the events of Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey begins with Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) breaking up with the Joker once and for all.
Never one for subtly Harley reclaims her singlehood in the loudest, most epic, Harley-like way ever. By sending a sixteen wheeler careening into the Ace chemical plant; the place where Harleen Quinzell plunged into a vat of toxic chemicals and emerged as the Harley Quinn we all know.
Her act of defiance reduces the warehouse to a wreck of rubble, the chemicals from the collision bursting sky high in rainbow fireworks.
Embracing the single life, Harley hacks off her hair, gets her sexy on in clubs, adopts a
dog hyena named Bruce (after “that hunky Wayne guy”), drinks way too much, and tears across roller derby rinks like a rainbow-hued human tornado.
Until word gets out that Harley and the Joker are done-zo.
Lickity split, Gotham’s shadiest criminals find out that she’s no longer under the protection of the Clown Prince of Gotham. And the creep that has it most out for Harley?
A narcissistic club-owning crime lord, Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). Haughty but charismatic, Black Mask’s explosive temper and fondness for carving people’s faces off makes him one of the most dangerous denizens in Gotham. And unless Harley can retrieve a stolen diamond from runaway teen pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), she’s next in line to have her face sliced into a fleshy frisbee.
Directed by Cathy Yan, and fronted by a (nearly) all-female ensemble cast, Birds of Prey was destined for two things before it even hit theatres. 1) Critics would trash it more savagely than Captain Marvel, Ocean’s Eight, and Charlie’s Angels. And 2) like those films, Birds of Prey would be accused of being yet another feminist-leaning flop.
San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle didn’t disappoint, calling Birds of Prey an “utterly dead thing” and “a terrible thing to inflict on audiences” that “should not exist.” I don’t know what movie LaSalle is so dead set on eviscerating but it’s sure as hell not the film I saw.
Birds of Prey and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is one of the most entertaining and empowering movies I’ve seen so far in 2020. I’mma give Birds of Prey ALL the hype it (rightfully) deserves.
Enter the Songbird, the Cop, and the Mafia Princess
Just like the BAMF trailers promise, what starts off as Harley being a Bad Person™ looking out only for herself becomes a fierce girl gang flick infused with riot grrrl attitude about four kick-ass chicks.
Inspired by DC Comics Birds of Prey series, Harley Quinn, Renee Montoya, Black Canary, and Huntress band together to save the scrappy teen, Cassie Caine, from all the murdery baddies. So, yes. While Birds of Prey is largely a Harley-centric romp, we do get to know the other badass babes.
As a queer woman of color, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) takes the police procedural single white lady cop trope and sets it on fire. Once one of Gotham’s most promising police officers, Birds of Prey begins with Montoya getting suspended from the force.
Her love is in shambles, her pesky problems with alcoholism are resurfacing, and she’s still licking the wounds left behind by a backstabbing friend who stole all her credit. But, the disgraced detective doesn’t let the loss of her badge stop her in her one-woman quest to take down Black Mask. Driven by a staunch moral compass to do right by Gotham, Montoya’s end game is to expose and persecute Black Mask for all his corruption.
Also straight up fire? Our second Bird of Prey, sultry club singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). The daughter of metahuman superhero, Black Canary, Dinah’s own secret supersonic scream (and her lit fight moves) puts her on Montoya’s radar. That and Dinah’s gig as Black Mask’s driver. When Cassie becomes Black Mask’s target, Dinah strikes up a tentative partnership with Montoya for her sake.
Reimagined as a woman of color, Smollett-Bell’s Dinah unapologetically embraces the features that set her apart from previously white Black Canary interpretations. With naturally textured hair, a nose ring, and fitted gold tank Dinah has a soft punk rock vibe. The lack of male gaze in this female-directed, produced, written, and led film especially shines in Dinah’s appearance. She’s a sexy badass that kicks a ton of ass without being fetishized.
Smollett-Bell exudes unshakable confidence and uncompromising self-respect that makes her not only one of the most formidable forces in Birds of Prey but one of the most empowering. Am I a little in love with Black Canary? Yes. Yes, I am.
The final Bird of Prey is Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). A Mafia princess turned crossbow-wielding vigilante, Huntress is out for BLOOD. After losing her entire family to a mob hit when she was just nine, Huntress embraces her inner Arya Stark and hits Gotham determined to strike off all the names on her death list. Namely, Black Mask’s right-hand man Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina, channeling his best dirtbag meth addict lewk).
A connect the dots brand of a vengeance-seeking tragic hero, Huntress has such a weak backstory that it borders on straight-up uninspiring. With the least amount of screen time and written with uncompromising loyalty to Huntress’s comic origins, Winstead’s Huntress is a predictable and uninteresting archetype, not an actual flesh and blood character. Sure, she has a couple of endearing moments –like the bit where she practices her revenge speech in the mirror– but quirks do not substitute for character.
Fight Like A
Girl Bird of Prey
In Suicide Squad, we saw a wink of Harley’s gymnastic abilities.
In the opening a tongue-waggling Harley did some prison cell acrobatics to Lesley Gore’s 1967 feminist bop “You Don’t Own Me.” But, HQ’s battle strategy in the action portions of Suicide Squad was largely booty shorts and baseball bats.
In Birds of Prey, Harley’s formidable gymnastic abilities strike like lightning in the many brutal and badass fight scenes.
One of the most exhilarating fight scenes is in the very first act: a Gotham PD prison breakout. Dodging hail storms of bullets and a melee of flying fists, Harley springs up into the air and hammers her feet into the faces of her assailants. To the thumping fierce beats in Birds of Prey’s lit soundtrack Harley twists, tumbles, and sucker-punches her way through a mob of men three times her size.
Birds of Prey’s violence isn’t tamped down because the main characters are women. In mind blowing fight scenes Harley and the Birds of Prey kick ass, crotch, face and just about any other body part that comes close with their fists, their feet and glitter guns.
‘Specially in Birds of Prey’s captivating final act. A battle royale in a freaking funhouse. Vibrantly violent all the punches and kicks are punctuated by neon colors and dope beats. The free-for-all fight is messy, gritty and frenetic. I. Loved. Every. Minute.
Bloody, bruised, and pushed to a near breaking point, Harley, Renee, Black Canary and Huntress take HITS. Their injuries and the damage they sustain aren’t disguised or shied away from by rapid camera cuts.
We haven’t seen women fight at this caliber since Charlize Theron’s 2017 action-thriller Atomic Blonde and I am SO here for it.
The fact that such a sequence is in a female-centric comic adaptation is kind of amazing.
The one place Birds of Prey falters is with its (mostly) unwavering focus on Harley Quinn and her emancipation. Margo Robbie is a goddess and the exuberant, candy-colored chaos she brings to Harley Quinn is otherworldly. But the Quinnsanity-driven narrative doesn’t give the other Birds of Prey bombshells quite the attention they deserve (RIP Huntress).
But, more than that, I wish Birds of Prey had all of the flashy, ass kicking energy of the last half hour, but for an entire feature film. For all its feisty girl power sensibilities, Birds of Prey’s identity is more of a phase 1 film. Think: a pre Birds of Prey, Birds of Prey film.
Ultimately, Birds of Prey is a gleefully escapist romp packed with dynamite performances, killer choreography, and fashion for days. Bold, colorful, and unfettered in its fight against
the patriarchy Black Mask, Birds of Prey is an unforgettable fierce femme flick that’s all at once grimy, gritty, and glittery. Harley Quinn wouldn’t have it any other way.