As one of the few (of very many) projects announced by DC a couple of years ago to actually come to fruition (RIP Deathstroke, Cyborg, and the million Jared Leto Joker spinoffs), Birds of Prey has been a long time coming and arrives with a set of mixed expectations. Its origins lie in a Zack Snyder-led slate that had done nothing but disappoint fans and repulse general audiences, but, luckily, it resolutely has not let that fact hold it back. With star Margot Robbie also acting as producer, Birds of Prey carves out an identity all its own and is an absolute blast, easily the best DCEU film to date.
Picking up an undisclosed amount of time after the prison breakout that ended Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey reintroduces us to Harley Quinn (Robbie) just as she’s broken up with the Joker (who is, hilariously, never seen in person and remembered in cartoon flashbacks as the Mark Hamill version, not Jared Leto). It’s a newfound independence for Harley that proves to be a double-edged sword; she can start to forge her own identity for the first time in a long time, but without the Joker’s fear-factor protecting her, most of Gotham’s underworld is gunning for her head.
Eventually, Harley’s path crosses with talented young pickpocket Cassie Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a runaway foster kid who has managed to steal the most valuable diamond in the city and is now being hunted by the forces of psychotic gang lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Into this volatile mix are thrown Harley’s unlikely allies – superpowered chanteuse Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), crossbow-wielding assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and no-nonsense cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who all have their own reasons for taking down Sionis. On paper, that looks like a rather convoluted plot, and it is, but in practice, director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson make it work with some bold structural gambits that really pay off.
It takes a while for everyone to come together, but once they do, sparks fly as the actors bounce off one another in increasingly deranged ways. Obviously, this is Robbie’s show, and she’s electric (easily as good here as in her BAFTA-nominated performances this year), even managing to make the rather irritating Deadpool-style fourth wall breaks into something fun. Around her are a coterie of solid performances, Smollett-Bell and Perez’s world-weary countenances playing off Robbie and Basco’s springy silliness in consistently funny ways, and Hodson’s script finds room for everyone in this very busy film to make an impression. If there’s a slight weak link, it’s Huntress – her action beats are cool, and Winstead’s initially odd performance really grows on you, but her integration into the plot is clunkier than you’d like.
Outshining almost everyone, though, is McGregor, who is having a blast as the spoilt rich kid baddie. He’s explosively entertaining, hilarious, campy, but also genuinely menacing when the time comes for it. Him giving a tour of his tacky, culturally insensitive new living room redesign is one of my favourite ever pieces of supervillain performance. By his side in almost every scene is an excellent, bleach-haired Chris Messina as creepy serial killer/Roman’s BFF Victor Zsasz, although you do wish that the film would just fully commit to making Roman and Victor the couple it clearly wants them to be.
Not only would it be a much-needed push forward for comic book movie representation, but McGregor and Messina have such a smouldering chemistry together that the lack of acknowledged romantic spark make some of their scenes feel incomplete. They’re both still a joy to watch, though, and the way Yan balances the tone of all these performances – always on the tightrope between horrible and lovable – is hugely impressive.
Perhaps even more of a feat, though, especially from a rising star director moving from indies to superheroics, are the action scenes. Birds of Prey has the best superhero fights since Civil War’s airport battle – perhaps even better than that – and these bone-crunching bouts are pulled off with considerable panache. John Wick director Chad Stahelski consulted on a lot of these scenes, and his influence makes itself known in very good ways. Long, mid-shot takes force the choreography to be top-notch, lending real weight and danger to even the silliest of mass brawls.
After 2019 saw a slew of some of the worst blockbusters of recent years, it’s so refreshing to have 2020 kick off with the surprisingly good Bad Boys For Life and now Birds of Prey, two action films that understand that you should actually make your action good, instead of a boring obligation. The ambition and style that Yan puts into the fight scenes is found all over Birds of Prey. At points, it’s even over-directed, the relentless licensed soundtrack getting in the way of the film creating its own emotions, but I’ll take that over the common blockbuster blandness any day. Funny and vicious, Birds of Prey sets an impressively high bar for the rest of 2020’s comic book movie pack that I doubt they’ll be able to reach.