Birds of Prey: An Action Flick that Sweats the Small Stuff
There are two moments from Birds of Prey that summarize director Cathy Yan’s achievement. In the first, a perfectly timed gut-punch, a trusted male character betrays Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) for nothing but a pile of cash. In the second, as the titular group of women come together for a blistering fight sequence against a never-ending onslaught of men, Harley Quinn sidles up next to Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), pulls something out of her back pocket, and asks, “hairtie?” before handing it over. Birds of Prey gets occasionally caught up in its own cleverness, but as in these moments, when it focuses on the big things that men do to control the women around them, and on the little things that women do to lift each other up, it’s an absolute knockout. Birds of Prey opens with an extended set-up – I’m talking about forty-five minutes – establishing the many women of Gotham City who have been cheated, lied to, and stepped on by powerful men. Self-aware of the drawn-out character introductions, Yan relies on visual and narrative flairs to spice up the backstory: quirky narration, time rewinds, and fourth-wall breaking, just to name a few. The gimmicks tire out quickly, but the investment in these women’s pasts is well worth it. At one point or another, each of them ran head-first into an over-compensating, power-hungry man who tried to control them just to exert his power. For Harley, it’s Mr. J (the Joker); for Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), it’s a rival mafia don; for Canary, it’s Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor); and for Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), it’s her former partner. The matching backstories are powerful precisely because of their subtlety: the narrative parallels don’t seem contrived because they so easily reflect the world we all live in. In its second half, Birds of Prey does a number of things well. Cathy Yan and her team can direct and choreograph the hell out of a fight scene, and with all due respect to Patty Jenkins and a bare minimum of respect to Guy Ritchie, we can and should crown Yan the new Queen of Slow Motion Action Sequences. Margot Robbie is fun, jaded, vicious, and vulnerable all at once, infecting the rest of the ensemble with her energy. There’s no weak link in the supporting cast, but Smollett-Bell in particular stands out, a true hypersonic scream from start to finish. But as always, it’s the small things that matter most. The hairtie. With apologies to many of my favorites, I don’t believe a single male writer or director would think about the danger that long hair poses to acrobatic fighting, or about the power and solidarity in the simple act of lending a hairtie. In building a team of somewhat unsympathetic anti-heroes, including these tiny acts of humanity give the audience an extra reason to care. And it drives home a message about the power of women. Birds of Prey stands out amongst its superhero peers – not better, necessarily, but different. It is unabashedly itself. More action movie than straight superhero flick, the film adopts the strategy of some of its successful predecessors: bending and breaking genre tropes in service of a comic book story. In other words, Birds of Prey doesn’t re-invent the wheel; it builds one from the ground up using the spare parts of a half dozen pre-existing wheels, in the process creating an alloy we’ve never seen.