“I wanted to see it in 3D,” says villain Huntress (Miranda Otto) of the piece of work playing out in front of her. To a blank screen stretching to the ceiling, as well as a trio of enormous screens set on either side of her, she holds a dog collar with iron-cage, blinking teeth on a chain. She turns to look at some victims of her criminal enterprise, and the dark hues of the real world track ominously behind her. Suddenly she sees the much lighter one: her own face and body, the blood and the stitched wounds that affect her quickly fade into a floor-to-ceiling garishness. “Really, I wish I could have hung that [chew] toy here too,” she cracks, acknowledging that the illusion is true.
Director Cathy Yan has been called “the Hollywood equivalent of a Hong Kong genre expert”; in her native Hong Kong, she helmed two direct-to-video action dramas before finally launching into this season’s most praised mainstream action film. Birds of Prey—with a terrific script from Christina Hodson (Shut In, Detroit) and a stellar cast that includes Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress—was shot in Toronto and uses the familiar old-school techniques of the genre to clever, inventive ends. As Sidney Tolan notes, “The most basic framework we can rely on in the genre is the femme fatale. You put them in a cat and mouse game, and they usually turn to cannibalism or violence.”
But Birds of Prey provides something else: a view into how that femme fatale powers, tricks, and spooks her nemesis. This narrative element is slowly revealed as the script leads the audience through its gradually unfolding scheming. Fussy writers whose heroines are too perfect and too sweet rarely bring such a character to life, let alone into the action. Instead, “it’s presented to you by the expert,” says Yan, “and you’re supposed to mentally figure out how it’s happening.” Birds of Prey gets just that idea out of the way so fast and so effectively that it seems anticlimactic when its underwritten plot turns out to be just another part of the battle for the three men in it.
Each character, moreover, has their own achingly moving scene, much of it silent, much of it with background music telling the story. What we hear behind each one is often just as memorable as the dialogue and onscreen dialogue combined, marking the best scene of the film, it turns out, when Huntress and Dinah Slay (the title character of a comic that Yan read as a kid) grapple in the bathroom of the Domino at King Eddy after which the heroine explains her motive, laughing about the failed whores she brought in as gifts. At the end of the take, the camera moves to a serious close-up that will not be seen again, and in that one glance, viewers get enough to believe in whatever motivations our three heroes may have hidden behind their roles.
Yan can easily be compared to a “little girl”—one who not only gets to play the other parts, but knows what she wants to play. For instance, Catwoman, who spent all of one good minute in Batman v. Superman before having her rights sold off to that movie’s villain, has rarely returned in a live-action movie since that disappointing outing. When Yan directed herself, they managed to return Catwoman to the Arkham Asylum in this story. “For me, I always wanted to do a great Joker. A great special effect was really the ability to recast the roles.” If Birds of Prey would be happy to supply some surprises for readers of the comics, the likes of Harley Quinn (Robbie) and the Joker (Jared Leto) are as shocked as we are that Catwoman has been reintroduced.
The Chicago Daily Herald