Film review by Matt Neufeld
The Washington Film Institute

Starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor
Written by Christina Hodson
Based on the DC Comics comic “Birds of Prey” by Jordan B. Gorfinkel and Chuck Dixon
Based on the character Harley Quinn, by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm
Directed by Cathy Yan
Produced by Margot Robbie, Bryan Unkeless and Sue Kroll
Cinematography by Matthew Libatique
Edited by Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff
Music by Daniel Pemberton

“Birds of Prey,” DC Comics’ and Warner Bros.’ follow-up superhero comic book fantasy comedy satire to 2016’s “Suicide Squad” and a breakout film for that movie’s and DC Comics’ standout bat-quano-crazy, unstable, slightly moronic–and concurrently, crazily captivating, sexy, funny and consistently watchable character Harley Quinn–is dumb, loud, overly violent, stultifyingly but also hilariously senseless, lacking in a decent story, filled with terrible dialogue, filled with cliched action sequences and fight scenes–and the movie just also happens to be crazily funny, weirdly appealing and ultimately an oddly entertaining bubble gum popcorn joy ride at the movies.

“Birds of Prey” succeeds mainly through its sheer sense of mindlessness–and the movie is indeed consistently mindless–and a knowing sense of goofy, dunderheaded fun, black humor, violent humor, over-the-top violence that is intended to be pointedly over-the-top, parody, satire, inside jokes, and a constant nod-not, wink-wink to the audience implying that the filmmakers, and the movie, know just exactly how dumb–and concurrently fun–it all is. If you’re not a superhero comic book fantasy DC Comics universe fan, you will probably not like this movie. If you are a fan of these genres, diehard or casual, you will love this movie. And there might even be some room in between for action/fantasy/comedy moviegoers who understand the joke, can appreciate the joke and can enjoy the joke.

Thus, “Birds of Prey” is very similar to the first two, original “Deadpool” movies–but not that stupid “Deadpool” holiday season movie mish-mash.

And “Birds of Prey” is carried along on its odd ride mostly due to the strength of Margot Robbie, who brings a quite original, somewhat lovable, somewhat irritating–but always fascinating–character to life. Robbie’s renegade criminal, crime fighter, rebel and insane nutjob character Harley Quinn is alternately smart, dumb, weird, down-to-earth, out-of-this-world, grounded, insane, normal, sexy, bloody, violent, sickening, even flat-out stupid–but through all of the character’s quirks, Robbie, and Quinn, maintain their sexiness, presence, energy and charisma. You can’t take your eyes off of Robbie/Quinn–or the movie, despite your better judgement nudging your conscience, reminding you, always, that this is and always will be a bubble gum popcorn movie.

It takes filmmaking skill to carry all of this off, and director Cathy Yan, screenwriter Christina Hodson and the cast and crew collaborate well enough on an always-shaky ledge, teetering just far enough on that filmic ledge to stay safe, but never falling completely off to oblivion where the movie would fail completely. It’s an interesting balancing act that Yan, Hodson, Robbie and the rest of the cast and crew manage to pull off–a cliched, somewhat unoriginal, by-the-motions comic book action-adventure comedy satire that hits all of these genres’ collective cookie cutter tenets and ingredients, but a movie that also manages to remain interesting, entertaining and funny, and a movie that even acknowledges directly its own cliches and obviously-borrowed storytelling, dialogue, action and plot aspects. Again, it wouldn’t be repetitive to once again compare “Birds of Prey” to the “Deadpool” movies, but “Prey” also liberally borrows from a canon of R-rated comedies, action-adventure thrillers and fantasies that didn’t worry about the kids, left all cares behind, and went straight for very adult, very sexy, very violent, very mature characters, lines, dialogues, scenes, violence and sex. And perhaps that’s what makes movies like “Prey” work so well in the end–cares, convictions, concerns and even morals, in a sense, are thrown away, into the wind, and thus the subsequent liberation of adult themes takes over and makes the movie more direct, more gritty, more straightforward–and more entertaining.

Not that every comic book superhero fantasy should follow this path–they shouldn’t. There should even be more G-rated and PG-rated comic book superhero fantasy films—because for many folks, comic book and superhero films have indeed gotten far too away from their childlike, child-oriented qualities, innocence and sense of wonder. There’s plenty of room in all comic book universes for G-, PG-, PG-13- and R-rated films. In this particular instance, regarding “Birds of Prey,” this movie just happens to work best in the context of a very late-teen- and adult-oriented, R-rated milieu.

“Prey” also works as a constant parody and satire of all that is going on—even acknowledging outright the movie’s constant clichés. When a cop starts a monologue about integrity and doing her job and how sometimes even the best cop has to break the rules to do what’s right and so forth and on and on—Quinn cuts off the cop and notes that the detective sounds like every cop in every cop movie and television show in the ‘80s (and, in reality, the ‘70s, the ‘60s and the ‘50s, too). When characters are seemingly caught in situations with seemingly no way out, Quinn cuts in with her goofy-funny and self-mocking narration and notes that there’s always a way out—even when it appears there isn’t—and then the characters do something so outrageous and so unbelievable to escape their seemingly dire situations, all a filmgoer can do is laugh. And, sometimes, Quinn is right there laughing with you. It’s all just for fun, Quinn seems to be constantly saying—even when innocent people are dying, buildings are exploding, trust is eroded, criminals get away with murder, and even the best of friends turn out to be traitorous turncoats. Through it all, Quinn perseveres, overcomes, survives—and laughs, much like her ex-boyfriend, the Joker. Although in this particular corner of the DC Comics universe, the Joker references here are more related to Jared Leto’s Joker from “Suicide Squad,” and not Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight” and definitely not Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker from “Joker.” And certainly not Cesar Romero’s Joker from the “Batman” television show. And certainly, certainly not Jack Nicholson’s Joker from Tim Burton’s “Batman” movie. In fact—although he’s referred to constantly by Quinn in “Birds of Prey,” the Joker does not appear in this movie, and neither does Batman. And that’s refreshing!
“Prey” tells the story of Hayley Quinn just as she and the Joker break up. Quinn, out on her own, restless, crazy, unstable and not really knowing what on earth she can or should or could do in the world, manages to anger most of Gotham to the point that everyone’s out to either kill, maim, harm or torture her. Quinn not surprisingly manages to especially anger the equally-crazy-insane gangster Ronan Sionis, also known as the Black Mask, who is deliciously, psychotically, wildly played by an unhinged, madcap Ewan McGregor, who plays Sionis as a combination of every crazy, dark, drug-addled, power-mad, psychotic gangster who everyone has seen before. But, much like Robbie as Quinn, McGregor gives Sionis his own scarily, frightening persona that is as much truly horrific as truly humorous—it’s another fine, edge-teetering performance that aligns perfectly with Robbie as Quinn. The suspense of Quinn battling Sionis and his assorted army of scary, but still goofball, thugs also helps move the story and movie forward. Sionis, as scary and terrifying as the character is, also remains bizarrely watchable and interesting, in the best tradition of the best scary comic book superhero movie villains.
As Quinn angers Sionis, she also, as noted, angers everyone else in Gotham—except a ragtag, rogue, renegade troop of underground, independent, tough—and, yes, sexy—mercenaries and operatives. These operatives, all finely, strongly played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Dinah Laurel Lance (Black Canary); Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Helena Bertinelli (the Huntress); Ella Jay Basco (Cassandra Cain, a spunky, young pick-pocket who Quinn endearingly and even, somehow, touchingly, takes under her care and supervision); and a surprisingly spry and spunky—and effective—Rosie Perez as the rogue detective Renee Montoya, come to Quinn’s defense and aide, somewhat reluctantly, considering Quinn’s unpredictability. However, eventually, somehow, these sisters in arms come to understand each other and work with each other to battle Sionis and his thugs. There’s a nice, strong chemistry among this ensemble, and Hodson and Yan have given each of these characters their own interesting funny quirks, and the characters have a great old time playing off of those quirks.
Mixed into the story is a wayward super-diamond that everyone wants, mafia back stories, Quinn’s backstory, and some sordid literal and figurative trips into Gotham’s dark, scary underworld of gangsters, crime families, drug dealers, murderers and psychos. The back stories somewhat help the main plot and subplot, but the movie could have improved itself by spending a little less time with cliched fight, chase and action scenes and focusing on some of these back stories with a little more depth. “Prey” would have benefitted greatly from focusing mainly on Quinn’s interesting back story—which won’t be repeated here, but is assuredly interesting enough to have been explored in more depth, with more characterization, emotion and depth—and better dialogue. If the filmmakers had just slowed things down just a bit and focused on Quinn’s back story as her true motivation for her character and craziness and recklessness in a more in-depth manner, “Prey” would have likely have been a much better movie.
And focusing on Quinn’s back story in flashbacks would have meant cutting some of those cliched fight, chase and action sequences. Especially the now so-cliched-it’s-offensive fight-scene-in-an-amusement-park-and-haunted-ride-attraction. Please! Filmmakers, at all levels, and this includes producers, directors and writers: Please give the fight scene in an amusement park and haunted attraction ride a break—forever! This habit of setting fight scenes in amusement parks and haunted rides was already cliched as of forty-five or more years ago, in the 1970s! The idea of a chase or action or suspense scene being stage in an amusement park, amusement attraction or haunted attraction was already appearing just about annually in the early 1970s, in films such as “Diamond Are Forever,” in which Jill St. John is pursued through circus attractions in a casino—including the appearing-gorilla haunted attraction gag, and in “The Man With a Golden Gun,” in which Roger Moore’s James Bond is pursued through a faux amusement park house of mirrors, and in about, oh, 5,000 horror movies. The same applies to chases and fight scenes set in the house of mirrors attraction—this is also so cliched, it’s just pathetic. “Zombieland” (2009) had a most excellent satire of these clichés ten years ago now—and that hilarious sequence should have put an end to characters pursuing or being pursued through these settings. However, these clichés—again, characters engaging in chases, cat-and-mouse chases, fights and action sequences in amusement parks, on amusement rides or in amusement park haunted attractions or house of mirror attractions—just keeps appearing over and over and over again in movies! Enough already! It’s such a cliché, the action sequence set in an amusement park haunted attraction in “Birds of Prey” comes across as tired and unoriginal—and this sequence can’t even be save by “Prey’s” over-arching satire. It’s just tired.
Nevertheless, watching Quinn and her gang of empowered female renegades take on Sionis and his thugs is still quite satisfying. However, the movie didn’t need to have every male character appear as a jackass, criminal or psycho. “Prey” needed several strong male characters to show that, yes, men are indeed decent people, too. As it stands, though, “Prey” fails somewhat in its feminist goals of female empowerment by going a bit overboard on bashing men and male characters. A few positive, supportive male characters would also have made “Prey” a more respectful, balanced and engaging movie.
However, as noted, this particular funny, satirical, violent and sexy superhero comic book fantasy comedy satire movie manages to succeed and entertain, despite itself.
And “Prey” also accomplishes another interesting balancing act so early in 2020. The year started out pretty horribly with three noticeable and embarrassing flops and turkeys—“Bad Boys For Life,” “Dolittle” and “Underwater”—stinking up theaters in a most junky way. Yet, quickly, the film world has now recovered quickly in recent weeks with three above-average, recommended movies that should be seen in the theaters—“The Gentlemen,” “The Rhythm Section” and, now, “Birds of Prey.”
“Birds of Prey” may not be great, but it’s not horrible, either, and the movie is entertaining—and it’s the perfect movie to see out in a nice, warm, dark movie theater during the cold, dark, wintry days of February.

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.