I was understandably wary of Birds of Prey the other day. I was influenced by the trailer and Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman declaring that it “isn’t pretending, for a single moment, to cast a spell of poetic awe” but is nonetheless “a compellingly novel popcorn jamboree.” I deduced that Cathy Yan‘s film would be about “enraged fuck-all nihilism and, in a certain social-undercurrent way, anti-brute-male revenge porn…savage winks and ten times the necessary emphasis!”
So much for imprecise, second-hand observations. Last night I caught Birds of Prey at the Grove, and it ain’t half bad for what it is.
It’s not my cup but any fair-minderd cineaste would have to agree that it’s a bracingly vigorous, high-style, toxic-male-busting romp.
Here’s how I put it this morning to a critic friend (but understand that the following contains a mild spoiler about the ending, which, trust me, is no big deal in the greater scheme):
HE to critic pally: “I wasn’t caught up or deeply moved or anything, but Yan shows real vigor and pizazz as far as this kind of cartwheeling, slam-bam, extended-DC-universe material allows. Very nimble and enterprising choreography and camera work. Lots of visual invention and verve.
“It’s basically formulaic junk, of course, but I dearly loved that each and every male bad-guy character is dispatched with a few savage blows. Whomped and whoofed and slammed on the pavement. Or thrown from a car. Or shot. Or kicked in the face.
“Does Margot Robbie‘s Harley Quinn appear to be big or swift or musclebound enough to knock these guys over like so many bowling pins? Of course not! Do her fighting sisters — Mary Elizabeth Winstead‘s Huntress, Jurnee Smollett-Bell‘s Black Canary, Rosie Perez‘s Renee Montoya (a cop) and Ella Jay Basco‘s Cassandra Cain — possess some kind of special superhero combat aptitude a la Bruce Lee on steroids? Well, yeah, sort of…if you wanna believe that. But I love the bullshit!
Important point: Birds of Prey lies, of course, by declaring that it’s about “The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.” Because it’s really about the bonding of five tough-chick desperadoes into a kind of D.C. Amazon Justice League. Or, in Quentin Tarantino-ese, “Fox Force Five.”
This teamwork aesthetic finally manifests at the 90-minute mark when Harley says to the other four “we’ll be better off facing this situation together.” Whoo-hoo! Social metaphor!
But then (an∂ here comes the spoiler) the movie completely reverses itself in the last four or five minutes by having Harley and Cassandra Cain (short, round-faced, maybe 12 or 13 years old) abandon their sisters and rumble off in their yellow Jaguar. Meaning that the D.C. Amazon Justice League of five (which was a thing for maybe 12 or 13 minutes) has been reduced to Fox Force Three.
What a betrayal of feminist “stand tall together and watch each other’s back”! It takes 90 minutes for these five desperadoes to join forces, and then Harley flips the bird and goes off on her own 13 minutes later. C’mon!
BTW #1: I worship the fact that this thing is over within a relatively brisk 109 minutes.
BTW #2: Why bring a hyena into the film as Harley’s pet if you’re not going to visually confirm they he/she has been killed after the mortar attack on Harley’s apartment?
BTW #3: I loved how Ewan MacGregor’s death happens so quickly and without any drawn-out dramatic emphasis. So quickly that I can’t recall exactly what happened except that he was suddenly over the side of a pier and into the water and there are blood traces, etc. I love that Yan didn’t try to make his death into a huge, over-acted third-act deal.
Remember that Birds of Prey was born out of Suicide Squad, which I frankly didn’t enjoy as much as Yan’s film. Robbie lobbied for a spin-off, and insisted that Yan be hired to direct. Robbie Collin has called Birds of Prey “something of a breeze”. I wouldn’t go that far but it is spry and flambloyantly fleet of foot, and it is visually diverting and dynamic as far as this kind of DC flotsam goes.
Critic pally replies: “I’m so glad you dug it! And I agree with more or less everything you said.
“Fun as much of it is, I think a problem with the movie is that, in terms of bringing the Birds of Prey together as a kind of Fox Force Five or Justice League, it’s such a bare-bones piece of storytelling that it’s not even entirely coherent. Yes, the women all end up on the same side in an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend sort of way. But the bonding isn’t exactly filled in. That’s why it’s likable trash, driven by energy and attitude, rather than an actual good movie.
“But it’s one that dudes can enjoy, even as we’re watching these scumbug men get their just desserts. (I liked the quick dispatch of McGregor as well.)
“I suspect that despite that ending, in the sequel they’ll totally be back as a team. Especially Huntress.”