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Complex Characters and Great Action Take ‘Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)’ to Another Level – Review

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is back and better than ever, with some new friends joining her in what was a wild ride from start to finish. We are familiar with Gotham and the place which the Clown Prince of Crime holds within it. This is something that made Quinn untouchable. But now that she and the Joker broke up, she’s in for what is likely to be a world of pain. You see, no longer being the Joker’s girl has its disadvantages – mainly because those people who wanted her dead, can now act upon their bloodlust. At the top of this list? Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina).

However, as Quinn aptly says in the film, “I wasn’t the only dame in Gotham looking for emancipation.” Enter: Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Lance is a singer at the Black Mask Club who has a killer voice (literally), and while she works for Sionis, it is Detective Montoya who scopes her out, trying to get as much dirt on Sionis as she can so the Gotham PD can finally put the man behind bars – or more likely, toss him into Arkham. Lance is doing her best to keep herself on Sionis’s good side, so she evades Montoya as best as she can. On the other side of all this, we have Bertinelli. The often mysterious figure is someone else that Montoya is trying to figure out, not that she knows exactly who she’s looking for. Bertinelli is very good at her job, only leaving bodies in her wake and not much else in the way of evidence. 

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

So, while Harley is essentially running for her life, she also takes pick-pocket extraordinaire, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), under her wing. While we quickly learn that Harley has a soft spot for the kid, her intentions aren’t necessarily pure – especially as she’s trying her best to elude Sionis’s violent clutches. But with the powers at be being what they are, the quintet learns that it’s best for them to work together if they all want to be free of Sionis and Zsasz once and for all. But whether the dames will succeed in being emancipated – well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out. 

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a whirlwind of R-rated fun. It relies on Quinn’s storytelling and point-of-view, which is interesting because she’s not exactly the most reliable narrator. In the film’s first half, we often bounce back and forth from the present to the past and back again – which might be jarring for those who expect a film’s pacing to go a certain way. However, if you think of how the narrative is being shown and just who it’s coming from, it works amazingly well. It expertly shows the audience just how chaotic Harley can be at times. So, for this reason, it was something about the film that I loved, but I could see that it might not necessarily translate to the audience as a whole. That being said, Robbie once again kills it as Harley Quinn. 

Jurnee Smollett as Dinah Lance and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

As we previously met Robbie’s Harley back in the 2016 flick, Suicide Squad, it was refreshing to see her as so much more than just the Joker’s girlfriend. The audience is able to see Quinn in a different light. With the Joker in her peripheral, we see a side to Quinn that explores the character’s varying emotional states. We see a sad Harley, drowning her sorrow in a onesie while eating spray cheese. We see a vengeful Harley, blowing up the chemical plant where she first became Joker’s Harlequin. We see a determined Harley who wants nothing more than to live her best life, without having to look over her shoulder.  We see all these Harleys and many more, and each is a treat to watch thanks to Robbie’s impeccable performance.

Of course, the film is not only about Miss Quinzel. With this film, we have a great new cast of characters who hold their own alongside the likes of Quinn. Montoya is a Gotham PD detective, hellbent on seeing Sionis finally serve his time behind bars. Having held herself to a high moral standard, Montoya finds herself battling with decisions she’s made out of desperation to compile this case against one of Gotham’s most notable villains. On the other hand, you have Dinah/Black Canary working for the same criminal Montoya is trying to lock up, and then you have Helena/Huntress, who is closing in on a target close to Sionis, just trying to stay out of everyone’s way (and God help you if you find yourself in hers). As Montoya blurs the line between what is right and wrong, something she has in common with Black Canary and Huntress, the work of each actor truly shines. Perez, Smollett and Winstead expertly breathe life into their comic book counterparts. The trio truly brings something special to their respective characters and it’s clear that they did their research on the source material. It is not often that a character is truly embodied by the actor portraying them, but Smollett, Perez and Winstead indeed did just that while bringing in some of their own originality to the mix. My only wish is that we got to see even more of them.

Chris Messina as Victor Zsasz and Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis in Birds of Prey (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

With Cathy Yan at the helm, we also saw a very different Gotham than what was seen in past films. It was quite common in the past to see the fabled city in all its depravity at night. However, in this film, we see an awful lot of Gotham in the daytime – and let me tell you, it’s just as gritty. Not only do we meet Quinn’s many enemies, we learn more about the crime that engulfs the city and its citizens, including a pickpocket by the name of Cassandra Cain. In her debut feature film role Ella Jay Basco is a force to be reckoned with. With impeccable comedic timing, the young actress holds her own against heavyweights like Robbie, Perez, Smollett, Winstead, McGregor and Messina. A great addition to the DC family, I can’t wait to see what else is in store for Cain after this film and look forward to more from Basco as the savvy and street-smart thief. 

Of course, we cannot talk about this film and not talk about its villains. I think that in terms of DCEU films, McGregor’s Sionis and Messina’s Zsasz are my favourite villains. While they are rather unassuming in terms of appearance, the duo certainly makes up for it in demeanour and attitude. There is something entirely unnerving about the pair and their penchant for gruesome violence. Sionis and Zsasz make it their business to terrify those who get in their way or don’t join them. The results are both devastating and terrifying (something you will see on the big screen when you watch the film) and it makes for some of the best villain moments seen in a comic book film to-date.  

Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Helena Bertinelli, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain and Jurnee Smollett as Dinah Lance in Birds of Prey (Photo by Claudette Barius, courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Coupling the amazing acting from the cast with an action-packed and comedic script from Christina Hodson, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a film that certainly deserves its place in the pantheon of comic book films. The action is some of the best that you’ll ever see and while it is bloody and oftentimes violent, the film doesn’t solely rely on just that to make the action appealing. The fight sequences are well choreographed, and very raw. Each character gets the chance to show off their unique set of skills and it makes for a wonderful watch. While the film is different from its many counterparts,  it doesn’t seem to be too overly concerned about its place in the larger spectrum of things. It has some elements that are indescribably unique – including the bonds of camaraderie and sisterhood, that haven’t really been felt or seen yet in other comic book films (save for a handful). 

This is what makes Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) stand out for me. A group of badass women, who do badass things, but do not solely rely on just that. These are characters who are nuanced, flawed and come with a lot of baggage, but they still come together as a unit to form an unlikely kinship, and an even more unlikely team. While the film may not be perfect to some, I would be surprised if you could look past its great action, perfectly timed comedy and performances that are impossible to get enough of.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is out in theaters February 7!  

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