‘Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)’ Review: One of the Best Films You’ll See in 2020

The best part about 'Birds of Prey' is that it avoids superficial empowerment in favor of women who are allowed to rage, to kill, to be gloriously violent, to hate and fight each other, and to figure out teamwork in their own way.

Warner Bros. Pictures

As the title so delightfully implies, Birds of Prey is a smashingly fantabulous time. It is as chaotic and as energetic as the high Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) gets after shielding herself from semi-automatics behind a wall of cocaine bricks, so, pretty potent. Infectiously funny, deliciously smart, and impeccably badass, Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a near-perfect cinematic experience. 

Harley Quinn and Joker have broken up. Harley has ripped off her ‘J’ necklace and blown up Ace chemicals in an I-hate-my-ex fury, so they are really, officially over (thank god); As she so eloquently says in one of the film’s promotional videos: “I am so fucking over clowns!” One teensy problem is that without Joker’s protection Harley finds herself the target of Gotham’s entire criminal underground, those she had previously taken great pleasure in antagonizing. Of course, she initially seems to take it with a delight in the chase and a shit-eating grin. It’s only when things begin to escalate – Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) trying to cut her face off – that Harley gets a bit desperate. Her determination to not die in Sionis’ basement sets her on a collision course with four other women, a team-up that proves perspective-tipping for all of them. 

Harley Quinn is at her very best in Birds of Prey and this is absolutely Robbie’s tour-de-force performance. Often shoved into the box of “basic” Robbie proves her acting chops with this out-there, maniacal, intelligent, bouncy character. It is a brave performance if not just for the sheer level of campiness that Harley possesses; Robbie is fearless in her embodiment of such a wild, untethered woman, and she is indisputably the perfect person to play Harley. 

Black Canary, or just Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) since she hasn’t quite become the vigilante powerhouse she will be, avoids confronting her mother’s legacy by becoming a nightclub singer rather than using her voice to fight. Having watched her mother die working for the Gotham PD, she’s reluctant to pick up the role that was emptied. Instead of taking Gotham’s criminal masterminds down she busies herself working for one. As Roman Sionis’ favorite singer and freshly-minted driver, corruption and evil begin to weigh heavily on her and she decides to feed Montoya (Rosie Perez) information. Rough-around-the-edges lesbian detective Renee Montoya conducts herself with the unmistakable veneer of a fictional cop from the 80s. A bit of a drawl and a bit lost in the bottle, Montoya struggles to find a fully realized version of herself – one where she doesn’t have to wear beer-stained shirts from the station’s lost and found bin. Determined to sift through Gotham’s seething piles of corruption until she finds a big break, Montoya is unafraid to get her hands dirty – something her coworkers find a bit too gritty. 

Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Helena Bertinelli is full of rage-issues and single-minded vengefulness. Assassin-turning-vigilante, she has an eye only for the revenge killing of the mobsters and villains who mass murdered her entire family. Her mind is a cesspool of anger, trauma, and death but her inimitable darkness hasn’t corrupted her to selfishness or deceit and she is actually quite fun. Winstead’s performance is just as effortlessly cool and only slightly less manic-pixie-dream girl than her performance in Scott Pilgrim vs the World

Birds of Prey’s youngest mess-maker Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) has had a major storyline alteration; one that, while not totally unwelcome, changes a lot of important aspects of her characterization. Less the deeply traumatized daughter of one of DC’s most notable assassins, Lady Shiva, and more an abandoned kid bounced from home to home, Cass is a pickpocket rather than a graceful and sharp fighter. Although Ella Jay Basco delivers her lines with an ease that seems well-practiced, I personally cannot help but miss the sweet, powerful, mute Cass who has a deep affection for her found family and becomes Orphan, Black Bat, and Batgirl in turn. 

Former journalist and Birds of Prey director Cathy Yan possess both a natural gift and uninhibited freshness. Her voice is explosive and daring and more vibrant than the most neon of pinks in Harley’s costume. Yan proves her skill and cohesive ability to direct with this sparkling breakthrough feature – her debut feature being Dead Pigs. Her assembled crew is a fantastic one, with stellar work from writer Christina Hodson, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, costume designer Erin Benach, all three production designers, and both editors. Additionally, Yan brought on John Wick 3 director Chad Stahelski as second unit director to consult for fight scenes (as is the norm for most action films) and his measure of expertise is certainly an asset. While it is Yan’s voice that shines through, the precision and skillful complexity with which the fight scenes are choreographed and shot allows them to burst with power and fun. Each of the women has fighting styles full of personality – catered directly towards the training they’ve had and the ways they’ve grown differently as fighters. 

The production design is one of the most striking aspects of Birds of Prey. This is the first time we get to see Gotham through Harley’s eyes, and rather than being a dreary, rainy city filled with dread, it’s shocking in its aliveness. The vibrancy with which K. K. Barrett, Rich Romig, and Julien Pougnier manipulate space is super dynamic to watch; Everything feels like a truly lived-in space, while still fulfilling the crazy, unpredictable imagination that Harley has. Combined with Libatique’s gorgeous camera work, everything in this film feels intentionally colorful and highly spirited.

Perhaps the best part about Birds of Prey is that it avoids corny, superficial empowerment (think the girl power scene in Avengers: Endgame) in favor of women who are allowed to rage, to kill, to be gloriously violent, to hate and fight each other, to figure out teamwork in their own way. Shoving women next to each other for the sake of drawing feminist attention is completely different from letting women clash and be bold and meld in whatever messy way they can. The women of Birds of Prey are completely free in what they do, and nothing they do is for the sake of surface-level girl power. The film actually explores the complex, painful inner workings of misogyny on a variety of levels. They experience workplace discrimination, blatant attempts at rape and assault, verbal harassment, and more, but all on a level that is meant to document how realistic these experiences are rather than showing them off.

These girls have got lots of high-kicking, Moulin Rouge! references, skate fighting to “Barracuda” by Heart, raw vulnerability, a badass female gaze, respect and empathy, not hypersexualized but still sexy wardrobes that rock, casually significant LGBT characters, the greatest canary cry in Dinah Lance’s history, and so much fucking fun. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) might just be the best, most shin-snappingly sensational film ever.

 

To support the site and gain access to exclusive content, consider becoming a patron.

Jenna Kalishman

Jenna Kalishman is a writer and student at Colorado College pursuing English and film studies. She especially loves morally questionable female characters, Stevie Nicks, sapphic yearning, and Rachel Weisz's energy in The Favourite.

2 Comments

  1. Well pretty favourable review. To call Cathy Yan a genius is very, very far fetched though. She has the thinnest skin of anyone I have ever communicated with. My question to her was”: why go so woke and pander to the extremists? Especially when it isn’t your own money making the movie and you want as wide of an audience as possible. As a woman, I am sick of overcompensating feminism which this movies marketing had in spades. Although the reviewer here liked it, the audience was very small, and the means not a lot of women wanted to see it. 54% of ticket sales were from men, So can’t blame them for bop failure. This is one of many reasons we can’t be calling Cathy Yan a genius.

    • Birds of Prey is absolutely not a woke extremist film and it’s unfortunate that you see it as one. It doesnt pander to anyone and rather tries to be a lot more subtle in its feminism – letting women experience life however they experience it. Just because women are teaming up together doesn’t mean that a film is attempting to “overcompensate feminism.” I actually wrote about this in my review. Making your own budget back in a weekend ($81mil) isn’t a failure and neither is Cathy Yan.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.