Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” (2020)

The eighth film in the DC Extended Universe, Birds of Prey sees Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) make the decision to cut ties with The Joker and to try and make it on her own, setting herself up as a bounty hunter and mercenary among many other things, but she soon finds herself drawn into danger when crime boss Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) goes on the hunt for young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who has stolen a particularly important and valuable diamond from him, and she soon crosses paths with jaded detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Sionis’ nightclub singer/driver Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and the vengeance seeking vigilante Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), all having to team up to protect the young girl from the sadistic crime boss.

First of all, the first half of Birds of Prey is excellent as it quickly shows itself to be noticeably more fun and enticing than some of the other, grimmer, DCEU films and the film’s opening is refreshingly fast paced, snappy, and put together with a clear amount of imagination and passion, using a combination of animation, fourth wall breaking, and a distinct comic book style to great effect. The first half also demonstrates how well the film’s creative team truly understand the character of Harley Quinn, far better than the abysmal Suicide Squad did, anyway, and while watching, I was instantly reminded of how she appeared in the popular animated series, given her recognisable voice, mannerisms and distinct personality; this section of the film is choc full of references and little reminders of how she appeared in projects like the animated series and seeing how the director, writer and central star completely understood the character brought me so much geeky joy and it’s great to see that Margot Robbie has now been given a proper chance to make the role her own, having already made an impression in Suicide Squad, though in that project, she was clearly held back by the film’s terrible writing, direction and uncomfortable male gaze.

The opening half also showcases some wonderfully wild and anarchic action/fight sequences, such as a fun street chase and an excellent police station assault, and these are performed with so much glee by the central players and the sequences are directed very well by Cathy Yan, using slow motion at all the right times, framing certain shots as though they came straight out of a comic book/series, using just the right musical accompaniment in the background, and helming it all with imagination and a sense of genuine fun that’s much needed within the DC universe. The film is also well designed as there’s plenty of colour used, the various costumes work well (really dug Black Mask’s classic white suit/black gloves look and greatly appreciated the fact that Harley did away with those inappropriately short shorts – screw you, David Ayer), and both Daniel Pemberton’s score and the film’s soundtrack worked a treat.

But after that very promising opening, during which I predicted that this may very well be one of the best comic book films that I’ve seen for a while, the film slows down a great deal and dedicates a healthy amount of time to the more “talkier” scenes and while this is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, it means that the pace slakens quite a bit and after experiencing the crazy fun of the first half, what’s presented in the middle section isn’t particularly interesting and it becomes clear that the plot of Birds of Prey isn’t as strong or as innovative as it could have been and that the central antagonist doesn’t pose enough of a threat; I also have to admit that the other members of the titular team aren’t as intriguing or as compelling as Harley Quinn and honestly, interest dips when the story focuses on the other characters. True, the film gets its mojo back as it moves into its final setpiece, when we see the team work together to take down the bad guys in an entertaining enough funhouse sequence, but Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson drop the ball somewhat in the slightly lethargic second act by letting the pacing slacken and by not having a fresh enough story. There’s also a VERY generous helping of F-bombs and while it’s no bad thing to see a properly R rated CBM, not pandering to the family audience and giving the story some much needed grit and darkness (facecutting scene anyone?), the F-bombs are thrown around too liberally and it gets to a point where it all becomes too much, sticking them in just because they can.

Looking at the cast, it’s clear that Margot Robbie stands head and shoulders above everyone else and, as mentioned before, this film really gives her the perfect opportunity to have fun with the character and to make it her own, channeling the spirit of how Quinn appeared in the animated series and completely nailing the character’s physicality, her wicked quips and one-liners and her often childlike behaviour but also a fierce toughness and a distinct vulnerability and humanity; Robbie IS Harley Quinn and she seems to really relish getting to portray her on screen, playing her with remarkable skill, plenty of depth, and a proper understanding of what the character’s about. Alongside, Ewan McGregor also looks like he’s having fun as the sadistic Roman Sionis/Black Mask and he proves to be both an entertaining and nasty villain, though his character is nowhere near as interesting as the others that can be found in Batman’s rogue’s gallery, and as for the central team, Rosie Perez is wonderfully tough and ballsy as detective Renee Montoya, showing grit and determination as she struggles to combat all the chauvinism of the police force, Jurnee Smollett-Bell is appropriately badass as the protective and deadly Black Canary, Ella Jay Basco (in her debut performance) provides plenty of sass and toughness as plot-essential Cassandra Cain, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is effective as The Crossbow Killer Huntress, at her best when she demonstrates her character’s social awkwardness and her fun mockery of all those super serious vigilantes with tragic pasts (“They call me . . .”) but she has the least amount of screentime and her character feels underdeveloped.

So in conclusion, Birds of Prey gets more right than wrong as director Cathy Yan, screenwriter Christina Hodson and star Margot Robbie demonstrate a clear understanding of the character of Harley Quinn and the world she lives in, coming together to deliver a fresh female-led superhero film that provides plenty of wild and colourful action but it’s a shame that it doesn’t quite live up to standards set by the wonderful opening act, letting the pace slacken too much and having the story lose originality. Still, at the end of the day, I enjoyed it.

And yes, there is a post-credits . . . well, not so much a scene as a joke but you won’t miss out if you decide to leave early.

A fun, entertaining and colourful adventure that is bolstered by a pitch perfect performance from Margot Robbie as well as some creative direction and a screenplay that demonstrates a clear understanding of the main character, but it’s also hindered by a sluggish middle section and a story that could’ve been more original.

★ ★ ★ ★