Birds Of Prey
It’s taken me a while to get to Birds Of Prey (and I will not be using the rather silly full title, sorry), not through lack of interest per-say, but there just always seemed to be something else coming out that caught the eye a little bit more. I didn’t hate Suicide Squad, and placed the Will Smith/Margo Robbie interactions contained therein as one of its best elements, with Robbie performing ably as Harley Quinn. But a full film of that character?
Seemingly DC/Warner Brothers/whoever is in charge over in that direction nowadays shared some of my concerns, because they decided to try and one-up the competition on the female front once more, with an attempt to adapt DC’s premiere female-centric superhero team into a film, while Marvel is still to get round to only its second female-led film (and they already killed her off). Such a team-up is certainly well-suited to the modern film-making environment, and will naturally be a breath a fresh-air in comparisons to male-centric Avengers’ and even more male-centric Justice League’s. But with a largely untested director at this level, and with the never-ending sense that the DC film’s are struggling for traction from the moment they get green-lit, could Birds Of Prey make good on Suicide Squad’s key redeeming element?
After being dumped by the Joker, Harley Quinn (Margo Robbie) finds herself alone in a suddenly very hostile world, searching for meaning and a reason to go on. The opportunity arises when she becomes involved in the search for a particularly valuable diamond, desired by ambitious, yet deranged, crime boss Roman “Black Mask” Sionis (Ewan McGregor). The search soon hooks in others: disillusioned GCPD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez); metahuman singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollet-Bell); vengeful vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and adolescent pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
I did enjoy Birds Of Prey a fair bit. There is a hell of a lot to like about this film, from the strength of the central performance, through to the action and with its aggressively pro-feminist credentials, as debatable as some of them might be. But, much like Suicide Squad, there are plenty of things dragging Birds Of Prey down, and one of them is that unnecessarily long, but undoubtedly eye-grabbing, addendum to the title: Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) which naturally had me thinking of The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel.
Because this isn’t really a Birds Of Prey movie. Oh, some of the more recognisable members of the Birds Of Prey team are in it (thought some of the most recognisable aren’t) and at least one of them is a very important character to the story (well, kinda, we’ll get into that). But this Birds Of Prey is never able to get away from the reality that it should really be called Harley Quinn And The Birds Of Prey. And it also can’t get away from the feeling that the the second part of that title is only here to pad things out. It’s the Harley Quinn movie that (some) fans have been crying out for, but, not unlike Deadpool, the Quinn character is one that works best in small doses: this much of her and her psychotic brand of peppiness might begin to grate, and that’s with the reality that there isn’t enough of her to fill the movie.
Birds Of Prey is simply too long for too little story, and that’s especially damning seeing as how the film actually isn’t that long, especially by the standards of the genre. Sans credits, it’s clocking in at a rough 95 minutes, yet still seems like it is padding things out to a fair degree, especially in its first hour, where director Cathy Yan struggles, hesitantly, to get to the point. She does this through a spate of timeline fudging, attempting to turn this quasi origin for Harley Quinn and the Birds Of Prey into something akin to Reservoir Dogs, where we jump from narrative to narrative, character perspective to character perspective in a haphazard manner. The effect certainly keeps a viewer on their toes, but it does not necessarily a good movie make. In Birds Of Prey the effect is more confusion, like you’re trying to piece together the events of a night-out years ago, your recollection made hazy by the passage of time and alcohol.
Instead of something more grounded and, to use what may be seen as a dirty word, traditional, it feels like we are consistently putting the promise of the premise, and the title, on the long finger. It might surprise you to learn that it takes a very long time for the titular team-up to actually happen, and when it does it is nasty, brutish and short. Instead, we spend the better part of an hour following the various named characters around – not just the Birds, but the film’s villain as well, and his psychotic sidekick Zasz – on seemingly separate adventures that, while they have an underlying unity, are still separate adventures. It is not until Quinn gets her hands of Cassandra Cain – who has, unfortunately, swallowed a diamond that could lead the way to an even vaster fortune – and buddied up to her that the film actually feels like it has gotten past a state of elongated prologue, and by then we’re actually nearing the home straight.
Is it, like Suicide Squad, an issue of having too much to show. The film is overloaded with characters that all compete for limited screen-time, and in a way you could watch a narrative on any of them and be potentially entertained, with the cast all being generally great. Robbie has some great manic energy as Quinn, though as the film’s protagonist she does come off an extraordinary unlikable at times. And she has a very strange case of pigeon-holing in that, for I think the fourth film in her career, she’s breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience. Perez’ Montoya might not be the version of the character I was expecting (much older for one thing), but she still captures the hardness of a Gotham gumshoe. Smollet-Bell’s Lance is intense, dynamic and relatable, but perhaps spends too much of the film following others around. Winstead’s Huntress lacks a certain amount of depth for what amounts to a Arya-esque revenge quest, but at least provides an interesting basis for a socially awkward superhero. And Basco’s Cain is essentially the film’s living MacGuffin, and largely treated as such by other characters and the script which, from Christina Hodson, is actually pretty good in terms of characters if not so much plot.
Arraigned against them is McGregor’s Black Mask, and to only a slightly lesser extent Chris Messina’s Zasz. They’re both OK, but ridiculous brutality is exchanged for genuine character building in their cases. Making time for all of them is hard to do, so Yan basically spends a huge portion of the first two acts introducing and fleshing them out as best she can, and only getting into the nitty-gritty of the plot in the last half-hour.
A larger debate can be had about the film’s feminist credentials. It’s certainly designed to be seen as an ode to women power, and to a certain extent also POC in its mostly minority cast, though Robbie and McGregor still eat up most of the camera’s attention. It’s undoubtedly a film where women kick a lot of ass while putting up with a great deal of idiocy from men. Quinn is left bereft by the callous Joker and is the subject of repeated physical and sexual threats. Lance is pretty much the same, Montoya is the victim of male-centric promotion grabbing in work, Huntress’ whole family was murdered by men, Cain may or may not be the victim of in-family abuse.
They all have to stand-up to their abuser and to a male-dominated criminal world, and they all get to do so with aplomb, showcasing independence in every act of aggression, cunning or refusal to bow down. Perhaps this kind of pro-feminist film-making will turn some off because of the loud, garish and exceedingly violent nature of it, with the women of Birds Of Prey imitating the violence of men without ever rising above it. Moments of genuine emotion – like Quinn’s drunken admission of regret for past actions – are rare, as are subtler examinations of female reaction to male dominance (like a silent Dinah Lance debating whether to get involved with a date-rape in progress). But a female-centric superhero film can’t be all essays on the topic or lone wolf character dramas like Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel, and at least Birds Of Prey knows exactly what it wants to be in terms of women-dealt violence, pulling no punches and making no apologies for its irreverent, flat-out zany tone in doing so (among many random jokes, we gt to see uber serious Montoya in a “I shaved my balls for this?” t-shirt, which is the perfect example of what I mean).
That violence is straight out of the Suicide Squad playbook, though at least it might be better lit. It’s cartoony in many ways, with Quinn sending numerous charging men into somersaults with her crazily-sized hammer, or the way that Huntress fights a guy while going down a carnival slide or Cain pick-pocketing serial killers. Yan loves to use the Suicide Squad joke of having ditzy information typed on-screen (this time, it’s the reasons why various people are out to kill Quinn) even while the mot horrible kinds of physical assault is being perpetrated. By the end of the production you’ll have gotten desensitized, maybe even a bit bored, by it all, with Yan substituting creativity with shock value on more than one occasion.
The familiar neon aesthetic is back in force, with an entire action sequence based around Quinn firing clouds of luminous pink and yellow at police officers as she raids a GCPD station (and lets not forget a multi-colured explosion scene early on, that sets the tone nicely). Indeed, so much of Birds Of Prey is like Suicide Squad from an aesthetic and cinematography standpoint that it is almost a surprise to not see David Ayer’s name on the marquee. There’s perhaps a bit too much forced cool and moments of badass to make up for some well-shot, kinetically entertaining beat-em-up scenes, no matter how good the soundtrack is on this occasion. An animated prologue is fun, as is a crime reconstruction from Montoya’s perspective and a Marilyn Monroe-themed fantasy sequence is a nice distraction from the reality of Quinn getting punched in the head.
Birds Of Prey is a bit of a melting pot movie in many ways, with a lot of characters and ideas thrown in, for a final product that is mostly pleasing but which, in the end, lacks a bit of substance. It’s well-acted and generally looks fine, and one can appreciate the integrity of what it is, and the message that it is trying to present. But on the other hand it dilutes down its story with an excess of characters and focal points, gets a bit tedious with its violence and edginess by the end, and seems more like a set-up for future films featuring these characters than a fully-formed idea of its own. It’s largely female, largely POC cast is to be appreciated however, and I would deem it at least a slight improvement on Suicide Squad, and a welcome sign that DC/WB are content to continue a certain amount of adventurousness in their properties. For that, recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).