Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) Review
Early on in Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) tells the camera, “Me and the Joker? We broke up.” This declaration sets out the film’s mission statement. This is a new and improved Harley Quinn, one unshackled from the Clown Prince of Crime. In short, Birds of Prey is not the same as Suicide Squad. That film focused on Harley’s relationship to the Joker (played by Jared Leto), though it’s somewhat of a stretch to say Suicide Squad “focused” on anything. Birds of Prey, on the other hand, is a very pointed breakup movie. Its goal is to extricate Harley not only from the Joker but also from the muddled mess of the earlier DC Universe movies.
At the end of the day, Birds of Prey is a joyfully chaotic film that rockets past the bar set by the other DC Universe movies. Yan escapes from the gloomy palette of past DC films, filling the screen with bursts of detail and color. Robbie fully embraces the more cartoonish side of Harley, forgoing the mopey, Joker-obsessed loser she came across as in Suicide Squad. At first blush, Birds of Prey can seem a tad unfocused, as Harley manically narrates the film, bouncing from past to present and back again. However, this is a surprisingly tight film; the flashbacks never feel out of place, and they don’t drag the pacing into the gutter. They pop in, give you just enough information to make sense of a certain character’s appearance or situation, and then you’re right back into the action.
Oddly enough, this film reminded me of High Fidelity, a masterpiece of breakup cinema in which one major breakup leads to the hero ruminating on his past transgressions. Given Leto’s wretched rendering of the Joker, it’s hard to see his departure from Harley’s life as a loss in and of itself. Rather, now that she no longer has the Clown Prince of Crime backing her up, every gangster that Harley has ever wronged comes crawling out of the woodwork in search of vengeance. Chief among these gangsters is Birds of Prey‘s big bad, Roman Sionis, a.k.a. Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
Black Mask and his chief henchman, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), are a repulsive pair who push each other to new heights of comic book silliness whenever they’re on-screen together. McGregor, in particular, absolutely devours the scenery in the best way possible. He is hateful in an almost luxuriant way, turning a B-list comic book villain into a trust-fund gangster with delusions of grandeur. (Mad props to the costume department, as well; Sionis’s suits are choice).
Robbie, unsurprisingly, is truly great as Harley. Rather than shying away from the character’s more abrasive traits–her comical Brooklyn accent, her habit of fourth-wall-breaking–she dials them up to eleven. Robbie is one of the most charismatic movie stars of the last decade, and that charisma is more than enough to carry the performance.
Sionis’s grudge against Harley manages to draw a group of similar women into Harley’s orbit: the cynic cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez); the singer and bouncer of Sionis’s club, Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell); the vengeful Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead); and the teenage thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). All four of these other characters are interesting and well-fleshed out, but the standouts for me were Black Canary and Huntress. Huntress, in particular, maybe my favorite part of the movie; she’s only in a handful of scenes, but Winstead plays her with an exaggerated lack of self-awareness that had me laughing at nearly every line.
The action scenes in this movie deserve a mention, as well. Chad Stahelski, of John Wick fame, was somehow involved with the action in Birds of Prey, and it shows. Every showdown is easy to follow, and each setpiece produces some truly stunning imagery. About midway through the movie, there’s a fight in a prison involving fire sprinklers that is truly breathtaking.
In the end, Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is one of the better comic book movies in recent years. If there’s one thing I’ll give the DC Comics movies, it’s that, good (Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey), or bad (Batman v. Superman, Justice League), they give their directors a lot of freedom. With Birds of Prey, Cathy Yan swings for the fences and knocks it out of the park. Not only that, but it made me, someone who has never cared for Harley Quinn, kind of love Harley Quinn. And that has to count for something.