Movie Review: The First Big Action Film of 2020 is “Birds of Prey” by Director Cathy Yan, And Here’s Why

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MANILA, PHILIPPINES – When Harley Quinn was first introduced in Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, she was just supposed to be a throwaway character, a henchman for the Joker that just supposed to be cast aside. Somehow, through the voice acting of Arleen Sorkin, the animation and stories of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, and just her interactions with other characters, Harley became popular. She even found her way from TV to comics, one of the unusual instances when that has happened because, usually, the crossover goes the other way around. Twenty-eight years after her debut, Harley is the undisputed lead character in her own motion picture, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). 

BIRDS OF PREY - Official Trailer 1

Following the events of 2016’s Suicide Squad, the Joker breaks up with Harley (Margot Robbie) and kicks her out of their house. Despite the toxic nature of their relationship, Harley doesn’t tell everyone about the breakup because she’s practically untouchable in Gotham’s criminal underworld as the Joker’s girlfriend. 

At a nightclub owned by sadistic mobster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), Harley meets lounge singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). When a drunk Harley injures Sionis’ driver and is threatened by Sionis’ thugs, Dinah saves Harley and impresses Sionis who in turn makes Dinah his new driver. 

Hours later, Det. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) of the Gotham City Police Department (GCPD) arrives at Ace Chemicals after Harley blows it up since it was a special place for her and the Joker. Montoya theorizes that every crook in Gotham will now hunt Harley down as revenge for her many crimes against them. Meanwhile, young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) steals a diamond from Sionis’ henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) and swallows it, not realizing the significance of the gem. 

When Zsasz tells Sionis about Cass’ theft of the gem, the latter places a bounty on the kid, who Montoya has just arrested. One of those going after the bounty is Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), someone dubbed “the crossbow killer,” who has her own reasons for going after the diamond. In the middle of all this chaos is Harley, struggling to find her place in the world post-Joker and wondering if she still wants to be a villain or might want to turn over a new leaf.

In just her fifth film as a director, Cathy Yan becomes the first Asian woman to direct a superhero film and it’s a doozy. Completely non-linear in its storytelling (mirroring Harley’s own non-linear thinking and possible schizophrenia), Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a completely different entry into the current decade plus of superhero and comic book-based motion pictures. 

After sharing top billing with Will Smith and Jared Leto in Suicide Squad, Robbie is the undisputed center of attention this time around. She is clearly having fun bringing Harley to life, perhaps allowing Robbie to not be pigeon-holed as the beautiful ingenue that Hollywood tends to cast her as. Also acting as one of the film’s producers proves how invested Robbie is in this. The mere title of the movie should give people a clue on how relatively light and unserious Birds of Prey is, especially in the wake of last year’s critically-acclaimed Joker. With the #metoo movement generating steam for the past few years, having Harley free herself from the toxic nature of her relationship with the Joker was quite refreshing but it was also honest in presenting how difficult it was for Harley to get her ex out of her mind.

It also goes against type by casting Smollett-Bell as Dinah Lance a.k.a. the Black Canary since Katie Cassidy and Juliana Harkavy have portrayed the character very differently in the DC TV universe for the past eight years. Smollett-Bell’s Canary is mired in the underworld and is a police informant as well as someone who hesitates to reveal the extent of her own powers. In the case of Winstead’s Huntress, who was previously played by Jessica De Gouw on TV’s Arrow, the tragedy of the Bertinelli family murders and the quest for revenge remains, although Winstead’s version still seems lighter and more open to working with a team. 

Renee Montoya was first seen in live action form played by Victoria Cartagena in Gotham. Her role there was pretty minor though, almost forgettable compared to her characterization in comics. With Perez as Montoya, there’s more weight to the role as this is someone who was an effective cop but was passed over for promotion by her gloryhound partner. Newcomer Basco’s Cassandra Cain is probably the most different from her comic counterpart as she is nothing close to the hero that Cassandra has been in the source material. That doesn’t mean Basco isn’t any good though, she brings a youthfulness, a slight innocence, yet still with some swagger, thus causing Harley’s maternal instincts to kick in.

The most underrated performance in the film, in my opinion, is Chris Messina as Victor Zsasz. With his colored hair and goatee, Messina looks completely different than he has in previous prominent roles like in You’ve Got Mail, The Newsroom, The Mindy Project, and Sharp Objects. His Zsasz is still a bloodthirsty killer, just not as obsessed with weapons as Anthony Carrigan was on Gotham but remains a nutjob in Messina’s version. McGregor also seems to love playing the over the top maniacal villain in Sionis after being such a good guy and tortured soul for most of his film and TV work. It does go into ham acting territory for McGregor, but that’s okay since a personality like Harley needs somebody almost as big as McGregor’s Sionis to play off of.

That then might be the key to appreciating the performances of the actors in Birds of Prey, most if not all of them played against type in their roles here. It would probably be easier to just assemble a team of female superheroes fighting against a mobster and his henchmen but this motion picture instead goes the other way. A team composed of a psychologist-turned-nutty supervillain, a lounge singer hiding her powers, a daughter of a crime family looking for revenge, a cop who doesn’t play well with others, and an Asian-American teen with itchy fingers are brought together to face a nightclub owner/mobster with a fixation on African tribal gear. That’s quite an entertaining way to open the superhero/comic film genre for 2020.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) opens on February 6 in Philippine cinemas.

Photos and Video from Warner Bros. Pictures.

 

About the Author:

Jason Inocencio was once the Digital Editor of adobo magazine who still loves seeing great campaigns from all over the world. He proudly shows off his love for all kinds of geeky things, whether it be movies, TV shows, comics, sports, or trivia.

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