A funny thing happened on the way to my press screening to Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (and if you think I’m typing that title full-on again in this review, well, we’ll see how the word count goes), and I blame myself entirely. I didn’t know that Birds of Prey was rated R. Call it lack of research on my part. I almost wish I didn’t find this out before seeing the movie, because I would have really wondered what’s happening with the MPA (previously MPAA) these days. In a film with a lot of bad guys being dispatched in an increasingly violent manner, I imagine I would be thinking just how far the PG-13 rating is being tested these days. With films like Deadpool and Joker bringing the box office, and the DC Harley Quinn show being decidedly more adult than most animated fare, I should have expected it.
That’s not a criticism of the movie, by the way. Birds of Prey offers a lot of the same anarchic fun of Deadpool with a decidedly feminist angle, but all the chaos and mayhem is just frosting on the cake of a deeper meaning and message. Every character in Birds of Prey has a grievance (so much so that, when a new character is introduced, we get to see each grievance on screen like it’s a statistic on a Dungeons and Dragons character sheet) and while Birds of Prey is light and frothy, the underlying anger is not. Perhaps a rated R film is the proper venue for this after all; this kind of justified rage demands a body count. A PG-13, family-friendly version of this movie would surely reduce the impact, even as it also reduces the audience who may see it, but that can’t be helped.
And there’s a lot of impact. Legs get broken, noses get busted, and male egos shatter under the blows of Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) hammer. There may be a lot of bruised egos out there who may react badly to Birds of Prey, and to those men all I can say is that this movie wasn’t meant for you. (If there’s one redeemable male character in Birds of Prey, it’s the guy who makes Harley Quinn an egg sandwich at the beginning of the film. And granted, it’s a hell of an egg sandwich.) Just as Batman is the fantasy of men everywhere, Birds of Prey gives women heroes to cheer for as well.
And look, I’m fully aware that I’m not really the audience for this either. I don’t want to be that white guy film critic explaining this stuff to anyone. So I have to approach Birds of Prey on a mostly empirical level – does it work as a movie? And, without this being a Consumer Reports kind of review, I say yes. Birds of Prey is chock full of characters that we enjoy.
Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn is obviously having a blast. She’s completely engaged for the entirety of the movie. If I have any complaints about Harley, it’s that she’s a character that is more effective in smaller doses; Harley can grate after an extended length of time, but that’s the nature of the character. (To be fair, I feel the same way about the Joker too. When the Joker is front and center, the power of that character is largely diminished.)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Huntress, full of the familiar tropes of comic book superhero stories that we’ve seen before, but Winstead brings a real tongue-in-cheek approach to her that is a lot of fun to watch, and pokes fun at the silly nature of these male revenge fantasies at the same time.
If Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya has a superpower, it’s the Power of Law Enforcement, but her anger comes from a place of righteous fury and Perez manages to look like a badass and holds her own with the rest of them. Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays Black Canary with the vulnerability of a woman who does not know her own strength, literally silenced by the men around her, but also draws from a deep reserve of power. Ella Jay Basco plays Cassandra Cain, an incorrigible street thief who falls in with these superheroes and brings a bit of innocence to the gritty goings-on.
Finally, Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis is a terrifically loathsome villain; McGregor plays Sionis, at first, like all those bad guys that we love despite ourselves, and then brings a subversive darkness to the character that may be uncomfortable for some. We’re used to cheering on the over-the-top antagonists in movies like this, and McGregor has us question that likability.
Director Cathy Yan keeps the film moving at a quick pace; even when the film slows down a bit to build some character moments, Birds of Prey has the pulse of a really great rock song. Her action sequences are also top-notch, full of grisly violence but satisfying in so many ways. A lot of the action, interestingly, reminded me of the amoral chaos of films like RoboCop, and Yan gives everything a snap and a punch that is sure to please the crowds. Matthew Libatique is one of the best cinematographers working today, and he gives Birds of Prey a real comic book feel, and every scene pops off the screen, even in the visually darker moments.
There will be superhero films this year that have more of a success box-office wise — the R rating will likely reduce Birds of Prey’s intake — but they may not have as much going on under the hood as Birds of Prey does. If Wonder Woman is the idealistic, optimistic woman hero this year, these characters are surely the flip side of that coin; Harley Quinn, Huntress, Renee Montoya, and Black Canary are here to explode the status quo and unleash hell on a deserving world. There is room for all kinds of stories in the superhero genre, and naysayers better make way, because they aren’t asking for your permission.
Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) has its cake and eats it too – it’s entertaining and cathartic, and has more on its mind than may be apparent to a casual audience. It’s difficult to know what kind of influence this movie will have in the coming years, but if nothing else it serves as a rallying cry for those who feel like their voices have not been heard, even if comes in a candy-coated package.
Birds of Prey Review Score: 7/10
Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) opens in theaters on Friday, February 7th and is rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material. You can view all our coverage of the movie by clicking here and you can buy tickets at Fandango.