Birds of Prey (2020) by director Cathy Yan, has glitter sprinkled all over it, but there’s nothing remotely interesting beneath it.
When Margot Robbie played Harley Quinn for the first time – in the most questionable Oscar winner of our century (yes, Suicide Squad (2016) did score one award for make-up) – many fans expected the Aussie actress to reprise her role in a standalone movie. At that time, I was in oposition to most of the ardent critics of Suicide Squad (2016), because despite its obvious flaws, I found David Ayer’s film to be a guilty pleasure of sorts.
Admittedly, Robbie was nothing short of brilliant in an array of more or less bleak characters, and if anybody deserved praise, it was the loony Harley Quinn. She made this Joker-crazed ex-shrink character extremely likeable, for all her whimsical nature and blast-it-blow-that attitude.
Nonetheless, I was mildly interested in her standalone adventure, and the reason could be her limited backstory she’s been given in Suicide Squad (2016). Although Robbie mended the wounds inflicted by Ayer on the audience, Harley belonged to the henchmen league, and I just couldn’t shake that impression off.
But here we are, in 2020, when James Gunn takes over the bad guys squad in a remake coming soon, and Harley does, indeed, get her own feature film.
The story begins shortly after Harley parts with Mr. J, and seeks her own place in Gotham’s underworld. Without the backing of the Joker, Quinn jumps on a train of booze and partying, and it’s pretty much a more glittery collage of what HBO’s Euphoria (2019) portrayed in its beginning. That is also about time Cathy Yan introduces us to the film’s antagonist, Roman Sionis, who’s also known as Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). I’ll spare the details covering the plot, but Quinn manages to become the enemy number one of the entire mob world of Gotham, which in this case feels largely limited to Mr. Sionis.
Frankly, all it took for me to dislike Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (2020) was about fifteen minutes of its beginning, and thus the rest of its runtime felt like a true torture.
Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn disappoints
Let’s start with its fiery protagonist. Margot Robbie sells a volcano of energy, but it’s the kind of protagonist who sucks out your own life energy. She’s loud, she’s all over the place, and I found her stupendously naive emancipation (there was nothing fantabulous about it) completely unbelievable. Robbie’s in the same league as Jared Leto’s Joker, with over-the-top shlock of a role that brings little to the table for DC Comics universe.
The rest of the cast tries to make the most out of the hectic Gotham they’re thrown into. Ewan McGregor as Black Mask couldn’t be less menacing. The random outbursts of cruelty echo a Tarantinesque kind of irony, but I can safely assume it wasn’t the intention of Cathy Yan. This could be a miscasting issue too, but also just a poorly developed character. On top of it comes an allegedly homosexual relationship of McGregor’s character with his right-hand, Mr. Zsasz.
Zsasz, whom I absolutely loved in Gotham (2014-2019) as portrayed by Anthony Carrigan. In Birds of Prey (2020), this incredibly dark and creepy murderer turns into an unfulfilled Michael Kors model, played by Chris Messina. Therefore, the premise of a knife-wielding psycho gets traded for a knife-wielding psycho who is in love with his boss, and looks like a guy from Zara commercials.
In all of this mess, there’s only one character that soothed my existential pain, derived from watching this atrocity. That birdie was The Huntress, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The Huntress spreads havoc with the kind of zeal I expected from a film that boasts the word emancipation in its title. Winstead is both a charming and strong presence, and even despite her corny back story, The Huntress is the badass this film needed, in more than just a few scenes.
Other three supporting characters – a withdrawn child thief, a night-club singer, and a frustrated police officer – are all just as forgettable as they possibly could.
The struggling cast isn’t, however, the main culprit. Cathy Yan and Christina Hodson are, director and screenwriter of Birds of Prey (2020).
Birds of Prey (2020) has no sense of direction, and a silly approach to emancipation
Yan believes that her birdies’ kicking, punching and doing some nasty acrobatics will suffice to imbue the story with the theme of emancipation. Harley breaking out of her shackles feels just artificial. That might be due to the amount of side stories and a tiring visual concept, with its overly slapstick cinematography from Matthew Libatique.
Then, there’s the ongoing men vs women clash that couldn’t be cheesier, with the final fifteen minutes taking place in a theme park (duh) being the absolute worst piece of action blockbuster in years – from the choreography of fights to its mind-numbing editing. I wish there was more to it than kicking in the balls and corny dialogues that brought back the trauma of Joel Schumacher’s adventures with Batman. At times, Birds of Prey (2020) visits a sitcom set too, and all it needed to become one was a pre-recorded outburst of laughter.
I’d rather just wait for Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), and see a comic book do at least some sort of effort to make emancipation look a little less glittery and interesting.
I also didn’t buy the inconsequential world building, and had a hard time imagining Batman to live in this world taken straight from Billie Eilish music video. Even Daniel Pemberton, whose scores were usually brilliant (like All The Money In The World (2017)), goes as low as to throw in This Is A Man’s World cover in one of the film’s most ludicrous scenes. However, I’ll admit the costume designs are commendable, with their aesthetic being very close to Suicide Squad (2016).
Some will probably fall in love with this mess of a movie. Just as Nicolas Cage found his cult following (which I proudly belong to), so will Margot Robbie and her awfully wasted, second scuffle with Harley Quinn. As for the rest, I’ll just leave it this way – if not for Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s awesome chutzpah, I’d probably walk out of Birds of Prey (2020) just to reduce the pain of witnessing this on-screen mayhem. I didn’t consider walking out of Cats (2019), so that should give you a good perspective at just how disappointing Birds of Prey (2020) is.
Birds of Prey (2019) – Culturally Hated or Loved?
Nothing’s comes off as redeeming in this ill-conceived, corny and messy dive into the story of Harley Quinn.
Hate Grade: 9/10
Original title: Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
Dir. Cathy Yan
Writer: Christina Hodson
Starring: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Chris Messina
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Music: Daniel Pemberton