Birds Of Prey review: a step forward

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Harley Quinn – in the guise of Margot Robbie – returns in Birds Of Prey, and here’s our review.

The latest course correction in the world of DC movies sees Margot Robbie return to the role of Harley Quinn, that she debuted back in 2016’s Suicide Squad.

Roughly two squillion online articles have been written tearing Suicide Squad apart, and thus there’s little point chucking another box of matches on that particular fire. Save to say that Harley Quinn was the one character who really emerged from that film in-tact. It’s telling that the reintroduction of her character on screen this time around is keen to ignore much of what’s gone before.

Thus, Harley immediately takes centre stage here, in a film that’s in significant part about the aftermath of her toxic relationship with The Joker, and redefining herself and her life as a consequence. In doing so, she makes new acquaintances, does battle with Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask, commits many crimes, and breaks the fourth wall as required. The film around her is a little messy – a deliberate tonal choice, it feels – and keen to make its own mark. It has a nasty streak in places, a sense that people say down and made choices before it began.

Margot Robbie, as you’d hope and expect, is on fine form in the lead role, her central performance one of the film’s clear highlights. And the movie opens with an animated sequence that re-establishes Harley Quinn’s origin story, and introduces her post break-up with The Joker. I thought that was an economical and efficient way to get over the fact that Jared Leto’s take on The Joker wasn’t returning, and to allow the film to pave its own way post-Suicide Squad.

But then it goes a bit The Bourne Legacy on us for a bit. That was the Jason Bourne movie you may recall that didn’t have Jason Bourne in it, when Matt Damon elected not to return. The resultant movie overcame this by mentioning the character of Jason Bourne with alarming regularity, at one stage showing us a photo of him. In the case of Birds Of Prey, The Joker’s name feels mentioned more than any other. Some of it is clear and necessary service to the story – without The Joker to protect her, Harley Quinn is now a target for many – but I did feel that the point was double and triple bagged by the time the credits rolled.

In truth, my immediate reaction to the film itself was that it fell just a bit flat, and because I’m very aware already that this is a special movie for many. But I liked various parts of it. Count me as a fan of director Cathy Yan, certainly. There’s a clear and concerted effort on the part of her to hold shots, and to put on film action that flows without relying on umpteen jumpcuts. She comes across as a filmmaker who not only is aware of the frustrations with some of modern blockbuster filmmaking, she’s also using her position to do something about it.

On the same point, her camera doesn’t leer. There’s a point made at one point about Harley’s old and incredible tight top being discarded. Characters wear clothes that don’t seem two sizes too small. There are positives here.

There’s also two films, though, neither of which is fully afforded the space to breathe. On the one hand, I’m grateful for any modern movie that comes in generously under the two hour mark. On the other? Well, as well as picking up Harley’s story, the film also sets up the Birds Of Prey of the title, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead (pretty much brilliant in everything as far as I’m concerned), Jurnee Smollet-Bell and Rosie Perez assembling. There’s some pay off to that too, but their introduction does feel a little squished.

The film also lacks much in the way of stakes. The antagonists, led by Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask, feel dangerous at first, but soon head back into easily beatable territory, and whilst the ultimate showdown moments with a crew fighting side by side have highlights for just who is doing the fighting, it still felt to me underneath that time was being spent on big sequences where the endpoint was never in doubt.

Taken by the parameters of a standard comic book movie, then, there’s only so much to get your teeth into here. But this is a film that’s drawn me in more the further I get away from my first viewing. When, after all, has a mainstream blockbuster ever spent so much time following someone trying to find themselves after a break-up? There’s a sense of Ang Lee’s Hulk, in exploring a human drama in the midst a still-big-even-though-it-wasn’t-as-expensive-as-films-of-its-ilk Hollywood blockbuster. That’s the thread, beyond the pyrotechnics, I kept coming back to.

I didn’t love Birds Of Prey but feel it will have no shortage of people who will, and I’m genuinely thrilled about that. The miserable old fart in me just thinks of the parts brought together for it, there was something more here. With a bit of luck, though, the film will be a success of the size that I’ll find out the answer to that question.

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