It's the best and most brutal action scene in a superhero movie in years. Maybe ever.
Midway through the new DC Comics movie Birds of Prey (and the Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), the newly-single Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is cornered by some goons inside the Gotham P.D. evidence room. With the aid of a steel baseball bat and a big whiff of impounded cocaine, Harley fights her way out of dodge.
To find out how that scene came together, we spoke to Birds of Prey director Cathy Yan, who tells Inverse how classic kung fu cinema and a recent cult classic inspired one of the most memorable sequences in superhero movie history.
It's not only fun to watch, but also carefully crafted. With clear cinematography and editing, the fight scene is a rare sight in modern Hollywood action movies, which so often favor dizzying camera direction in the name of kinetic energy (and because actors don't usually do their own fights). It's a very American style of making movies, but ask the masters of movie kung fu and they'll tell you: That is not the way.
Enter: Cathy Yan, the millennial director of Birds of Prey, who was influenced by the legendary Jackie Chan, movies like The Raid 2, and her own background as a dancer.
"The idea behind the action was, 'Let’s keep it practical and grounded, and add an element of fun that feels heightened,'" Yan says. "Whether it is cocaine or a glitter gun or roller skates or a funhouse, that was always the concept behind it."
While the Chinese-American filmmaker had experience telling human stories in absurd situations, such as in her 2018 debut feature Dead Pigs, directing action new for her. So the artist got to work with 87eleven, the boutique studio responsible for blockbusters like The Wolverine, Atomic Blonde, and the John Wick trilogy.
Founded by ex-stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch in 1997, 87eleven emphasizes realistic, military-inspired fights with shooting and editing techniques inspired by Hong Kong directors.
"We wanted to work with 87eleven because that was the kind of action they do," Yan says.
87eleven's Jonathan Eusebio was the Birds of Prey stunt coordinator, while Jon Valera supervised the fights. Stahelski, who directed the last two John Wick films, served as second unit director.
“I would talk a lot about Jackie Chan.”
In Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn teams up with a gang of misfit ass-kickers from the DC Universe. Unlike her new gal pal Huntress, Harley doesn't fight like a trained assassin. Harley may be violent, but she ain't John Wick.
Reflecting on Margot Robbie's character and the situation she's in, Yan looked to several points of reference to inform exactly how Harley fights. Unexpectedly, that brought her to Jackie Chan, due to "his clever use of environments" and "practicality in all of his stunts."
"It wasn’t cutty," Yan reflects on Chan's work. "It wasn’t trying to create the tension or that hit in editing but trying to show it off on camera."
While the legendary martial arts performer is known worldwide for his blend of comedy and stunning kung fu, film scholars note Chan's unparalleled understanding of how to make action look good (and painful) on camera. In 2014, film editor Tony Zhou, of the YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting analyzed Jackie Chan's work, saying:
"He uses anything around him. This is the most famous aspect of his style. Take something familiar, do something unfamiliar. I've seen him fight with chairs, dresses, chopsticks, keyboards, LEGOs, refrigerators ... Not only does this make each fight organic and grounded, it gives us jokes that couldn't happen anywhere else."
Zhou also cited Chan's awareness of cinematography and its relationship to action, saying:
"Jackie likes clarity. He doesn't do dark scenes where everything is color-corrected blue. If his opponent wears black, he wears white. And if his opponent is in white, then he's styling. His framing is so clear, that in every shot he's setting up the next bit of action ... He keeps things clear by rarely using handheld or dolly moves."
"That was something I always wanted to do," Yan says. "Jon, Jonathan, and I would talk a lot about Jackie Chan movies because I'm a big fan. That was really the starting point for what the action in this movie would look like."
Another action movie reference for Yan was the 2014 Indonesian action movie, The Raid 2, from director Gareth Evans. The film features an antagonist who wields a similar metal baseball bat to the one Harley Quinn swings in Birds of Prey, which the director says was included as an homage to The Raid.
"We took a lot of reference from The Raid because of the incredible choreography and use of martial arts. Even the way it was shot was like a lot of old Jackie Chan movies and the way that Jackie did all of his old stunts."
Lastly, Yan also found inspiration from within. Before she became a Hollywood director, Yan spent her college years as a dancer, serving as creative director with her alma mater Princeton University's hip hop dance troupe, diSiac.
"I used to be a dancer and choreographer. I kind of call action choreography as a bit of a dance," she says. "You have to learn the moves and the camera itself ends up being a dancer as well. It’s how it all works together. That was the broader vision. There were other crazy ideas for props and how she can use them. But we were like, let's lean into that R-rating."
Birds of Prey opens in theaters on Friday.