Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey
We benefit from yet another film that received a fast-tracked release to home video, one that just came out in theaters on February 7—though I’m not even entirely sure what to call it, as Warner Brothers was nearly as conflicted with the title as Harley Quinn herself. The film originally released with the nonsensical and absolute mouthful Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, but when that didn’t resonate with moviegoers, they changed it to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, a title that puts the emphasis where it belongs.
I was a fan of DC comics growing up, but I’ll admit that my knowledge of the DC universe is fairly limited to the members of the Justice League—Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, The Flash, etc.—and while Harley is a member of the extended DC Universe, I really didn’t know much about her character.
Those who watched 2016’s Suicide Squad were introduced to Harley (Margot Robbie) as she joined a band of misfits to perform deadly missions in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 27%, the film wasn’t well-received. However, Harley was the movie’s highpoint, and she generated enough excitement to get her own spinoff here. While Birds doesn’t feel tied to Squad in any way, there is one brief moment where the “Daddy’s Lil Monster” shirt Harley wore in Squad is held up, which places the movie in that continuity.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that if you aren’t a
PREY AT A GLANCE
Another entry in the emerging genre of man-hating action films, Birds of Prey tends be as confusing and hard to follow as its heroine, but features lots of fight scenes to keep superhero fans engaged.
The 4K transfer does a terrific job of handling the spectrum from the usual Gotham City gloom to shimmering golds, glittering sequins, and the bright neons of fireworks.
The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is active and engaging, with appropriate impact, but Quinn’s VOs are too forward and loud in the mix.
hardcore comic-book geek, or haven’t seen all the DC movies, or don’t know anything about Harley Quinn, the movie brings you up to speed on everything you need to know about Harley’s backstory in the opening minutes.
Essentially, Harley grows up with a bad father, goes to school and gets her PhD in psychology, and then goes to work at Gotham City’s infamous Arkham Asylum, where she is assigned to treat The Joker. Over time, she falls in love with him, and, well, he kind of drives her insane. (Those hoping for any more of Joaquin Phoenix as The Joker are out of luck. An uncredited Joker has just a snippet of screen time in a flashback and we only see the back of his head. Also, no cameos by the caped crusader.)
Birds begins after Mr. J has broken up with Harley, and now she is forced to figure things out and survive in a Gotham where she has made a lot of enemies and no longer has The Joker’s protection.
While Harley frenetically bumbles through life, she ends up at a nightclub owned by main baddie Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). When Sionis’ driver is incapacitated, he ends up making club singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) his new driver, forcing her deeper into his seedy world.
After a diamond embedded with account numbers is pickpocketed from one of Sionis’ enforcers by young Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), Harley volunteers to find the diamond in exchange for Sionis not killing her, setting her off on her quest.
While this is going on, a separate story develops about a crossbow-wielding vigilante calling herself The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is going around the city and killing crime-family members, while being pursued by Gotham City detective, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).
These stories all weave separately, with characters occasionally bumping into each other until they finally intertwine, forcing the females to band together to fight off an army of masked criminals Sionis has assembled to kill them all and retrieve the diamond.
If that all sounds a bit confusing and a tad hard to follow, well, it kind of is. Nothing that Harley does seems planned or thought out, with everything just a spontaneous impulse based on sudden emotion or reaction. Right away, we see that she is totally lost without The Joker, telling us that “a harlequin’s role is to serve,” and they are nothing without their master.
The film also teaches that men, even trusted friends, will screw you over and that “if you want boys to respect you, you have to show you’re serious; blow something up, shoot someone.” The emancipated Harley doesn’t take anything from any man, paying back any sleight or offense with maximum pain.
The story is a bit schizophrenic at times, often jumping backwards in time as Harley’s mind puts things together, or adding new pieces of information helping to make sense of things and fill in the holes.
Prey looks terrific. Shot on Arriraw at 3.4K resolution, this transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and it shows. Images are gloriously sharp, with razor clarity and depth. Shots framed in tight focus leap off the screen, such as one closeup of an egg sandwich being cooked that reveals every texture and sharp edge and looked like a cinematic Food Network cooking demo. You can see every pore and line in actors’ faces, and the makeup and tattoos covering Harley. Wide exterior shots have a full field of focus that is almost three-dimensional.
The movie also has a bright and often hyper-vibrant color palette that looks fantastic in HDR. An early scene has neon-colored fireworks going off amidst brilliant-red fireball explosions. Costumes and backgrounds burst with color, with lots of shimmering golds and glittering silver sequins that shine and sparkle.
Because it’s Gotham, there are a lot of night and dark scenes, and blacks are deep and clean. Headlights, street lights, and the flashing blue and red police lights all pop off the screen. A final scene is on a misty and foggy pier, with lots of greys that are lit by dim and bright lights, which can be a total compression and banding nightmare, but these images remain solid, stable, and noise-free.
Sonically, Prey includes a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that is pretty active and engaging, and that makes frequent use of the height speakers.
City scenes have appropriate ambient street noises, and the nightclub takes on an entirely different sonic character, especially when Black Canary is singing and her voice has the reverb and ambience of being in a small jazz club. The Fun
House at the end also does a nice job getting playful with the audio mix, with lots of sounds coming from overhead.
There are a lot of fight scenes throughout the movie, and these have a lot sonic excitement. Gunshots have an appropriate snap and dynamics, and explosions energize the room with bass energy. During one scene, Harley attacks a police station with her “Fun Gun,” a weapon that shoots different non-lethal ammunition, and these projectiles launch with a solid thunk. When she fires off some gas rounds, you hear the smoke hissing into the room and overhead, and other rounds burst a confetti spray over the room.
Another fight happens in a prison hallway flooded with water. First is the sound of the water pouring overhead from the sprinkler system, and later you hear all of the splashes and individual water droplets spraying around the room.
I was a little concerned because Harley routinely narrates her thoughts, other characters’ backstories, or what is happening in a voiceover that booms across the front three channels. At first, I thought that overall dialogue levels were going to be way too loud and uncomfortably forward-sounding, and I ended up cutting the volume back a good bit from my usual reference. But it is just
Harley’s VOs that are recorded at a louder, forward, and in-your-face level. I think this would have played better—and been a far more playful use of the mix—had these VOs been mixed up into the height speakers, but I didn’t get to weigh-in. Fortunately, most of the dialogue is “correctly” mixed and easy to understand.
While this is a “comic book” movie, it is most definitely not family-friendly fare. There is a lot of swearing throughout, as well as some fairly graphic violence including physical abuse to women as well as one character that likes to, umm, cut peoples’ faces off. So, yeah, not for kids. But for the adults looking for a night in with a total break from reality, Birds of Prey is a sonic and visual feast that will make a home theater shine.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.