Much like its central character, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a riot – an anarchic glitterbomb of lunacy that boasts some of the most inventive fight sequences ever seen in a comic book movie, even if it often has a tendency to undermine its momentum just when it’s kicking into high gear. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel – especially in the wake of the fourth-wall breaking Deadpool franchise and the swagger of Guardians of the Galaxy – but it’s still a ballsy, biting blast that feels like a two-hour sugar high without the crash.After being underwhelmed by the initial trailers, and frustrated by the muddled mess of Suicide Squad (which squandered one of the most entertaining and bonkers concepts in DC’s canon), I worried that Birds of Prey would end up falling into the same trap as the likes of Elektra and Catwoman, slapping a pandering “girl power” narrative onto a paper-thin plot and trusting that skintight costumes would distract from how hollow it all felt.
Luckily, in the capable hands of producer and star Margot Robbie, director Cathy Yan, and writer Christina Hodson, Birds of Prey allows us to see Harley at her most liberated; a trickster goddess who undoubtedly creates more messes than she cleans up, but one who is no patsy, despite spending years in thrall to her green-haired puddin’. It’s the most nuanced portrayal of Harley since creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm fleshed out her backstory in “Mad Love,” one that actually takes advantage of the fact that Harleen Quinzel earned a PhD before succumbing to the Joker’s unhinged charms; meaning that she not only has the smarts to be strategic when she wants to be, but also has a delicious habit of psychoanalyzing her opponents in a way that’s hilariously disarming. And make no mistake, despite the front-loaded title, this is a Harley Quinn movie first and foremost, one that’s told from her own endearingly off-kilter point of view.
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Birds of Prey has a deliberate stream-of-consciousness quality thanks to Harley’s breakneck voiceover, which is woven throughout – first introduced via an energetic animated prologue stuffed full of easter eggs, which seems designed to get her complicated history with the Joker out of the way up front without actually showing him. (There are also a few direct nods to Suicide Squad, lest you try to forget that the two are set in the same universe, but the movie zips along fine without feeling the need to get bogged down by too much backstory.)
The plot swerves, skids, and doubles back on itself as Harley recounts the unlikely tale of her emancipation and the women who inadvertently become tangled up in it, overcomplicating a fairly straightforward story in which various factions are on the hunt for a stolen diamond… or on the hunt for those who are hunting it. Thankfully, Yan’s stylish direction and keen sense of comedic timing keep things lively even when the story starts to strain under the weight of so many competing storylines.
Although “Mistah J” is often namedropped – and serves as the catalyst for much of Harley’s growth here – his presence isn’t missed, since Birds of Prey serves up two villains who are somehow even more unpredictable than either Jared Leto or Joaquin Phoenix’s recent takes on the Joker.
Ewan McGregor is clearly having the time of his life as Roman Sionis (aka Black Mask), a mercurial and sadistic crime lord with a penchant for carving people’s faces off and wearing pajamas adorned with his own image. (Sidenote: the costuming choices in this movie are spectacular across the board, and just begging for cosplay — it’s no coincidence you can buy most of Harley’s clothes at Hot Topic already.) His cruel volatility, coupled with his control-freak tendencies, make him the perfect funhouse mirror reflection of Harley’s more benign brand of chaos – there’s no malice in her casual disregard for others, whereas Black Mask makes a game out of toying with his foes. McGregor chews the scenery with such commitment that it’s hard not to be charmed by his charisma, but just when it feels like the audience might be enjoying Roman’s antics a little too much, Yan expertly flips the switch, forcing us to be unwilling witnesses for his most discomfiting acts, just to remind us that it’s all fun and games until somebody loses a face.
Roman’s theatrics are made all the more chilling because he has the dead-eyed Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) as his unflappable enforcer. Although the knife-wielding serial killer is an iconic member of Batman’s rogues gallery in his own right, Victor’s obsessive desire to please his boss and Roman’s unchecked narcissism combine to create a dynamic duo who are pure nightmare fuel.
If it sounds like we’re spending a lot of time on the villains, that’s because the movie does too. Birds of Prey has a lot of masters to serve between emancipating Harley, setting up her antagonists, and establishing the other women crammed into that very long title, and unfortunately, the Birds of Prey are the ones who get shortchanged by the ambitious scope of this tale.
Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are all perfectly cast and utterly magnetic when they’re on screen – with Winstead’s Huntress proving to be an unexpected scene-stealer in her comparatively limited screen time – but there’s no doubt that this is Harley’s show. Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain fares a little better because she spends a good portion of the story in Harley’s custody, and the film really finds its groove whenever they’re together, but you can’t help but wish that Birds of Prey leaned a little harder into the team-up aspect of the title, especially when Smollett-Bell, Perez, and Winstead imbue their characters with such depth in such a short period. Familiarity with the comics (or other iterations of the Birds of Prey) isn’t a necessity, but it certainly adds more context and emotional heft to some of the easter eggs the movie drops, especially in the case of Black Canary’s storyline – but not so much for “Cass,” who is notably different from her comic book iteration, in ways that thankfully end up working to the movie’s advantage.
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Hodson’s script does a good job of tying the women’s disparate plot threads together and giving all of them believable reasons to hate Black Mask (along with some tantalizing hints of each reluctant hero’s backstory), and when they do eventually team up, it’s definitely worth the wait, culminating in a dazzling action setpiece. But the delayed gratification calls to mind Netflix and Marvel’s Defenders miniseries, which took three episodes to get the titular heroes fighting together, and even longer for them to all acknowledge that they were, in fact, a team. There’s certainly plenty of scope for a sequel, but it feels like a more streamlined story might’ve left more room for character development, even if the movie had to sacrifice some sass to accomplish it.
One area of the movie that perfectly balances character and sass is in its many elaborate fight sequences. In terms of pure, blood-splattered action, Birds of Prey has far more in common with the John Wick franchise than any recent superhero film, which makes a lot of sense when you realize that Chad Stahelski (director of all three John Wick movies) was reportedly brought on to help punch up the brawls. The fight scenes in Birds of Prey are jaw-dropping and more than earn the movie’s R-rating – utilizing all manner of props (from baseball bats to bags of cocaine), satisfyingly squelchy sound editing, and a deranged sense of humor to create something truly thrilling. And, thanks to an emphasis on practical stunts and well-choreographed camera movements, the smackdowns have a tangible, bone-crunching quality that sets them apart from the overly CGIed slugfests found in many other superhero movies lately.