birds of prey review

Birds of Prey just wants to have fun, and damn to hell anyone who won’t let it. A pulpy, kaleidoscopic funhouse ride that feels simultaneously high-stakes and low-stakes all at once, Birds of Prey is as cheeky, irreverent, and erratic as its central character, Harley Quinn — to both its benefit and its detriment. But mostly, it’s having too much of a blast to notice.

Margot Robbie‘s breakout character from Suicide Squad finally gets a movie all to her own, and despite its title, Birds of Prey is very much Harley’s movie. The beginning of Birds of Prey finds Harley Quinn broken up with the Joker and kicked out of his gang. Wallowing in misery and trying to find out who she is outside of her psychopathic lover, Harley sloppily engages in all the usual breakout rituals: cutting her hair, joining a roller derby team, going out partying at the local mob-owned dive, breaking thugs’ legs — doing everything but telling people that she and the Joker are broken up. Her association with the Joker keeps her protected from Gotham’s worst, and she is unwilling to give up that protection, until one day she hears her roller derby friends mocking her fixation with the Clown Prince of Crime. Deciding to break it off with him definitively, Harley crashes a truck into the chemical factory where the Joker first threw her into a vat of skin-bleaching chemicals, blowing up the factory and announcing to the world that she was a free agent. And now, a free target.

Gotham’s nastiest soon descend upon Harley, including the narcissistic crime lord Roman Sionus (Ewan McGregor), aka Black Mask, and his adoring henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), a psychopath with a penchant for peeling off faces. Before Harley knows it, she gets dragged into a plot to find a coveted diamond that street urchin Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco, appropriately scrappy) has stolen from Roman — offering to steal it back in exchange for her life. But Cassandra soon has all of Gotham after her, including Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), an employee of Roman’s acting as a mole for the police, as well as idealistic detective Renée Montoya (Rosie Perez). Circling this entire web of people is the mysterious vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who sadly feels tacked onto the film.

The film’s plot, is slight at best, convoluted at worst, but Birds of Prey rips through its hardboiled neo-noir story with such gleeful abandon that you barely notice the tired Macguffin narrative — half of which seems cobbled together from the film’s reshoots. It’s aided by the wacky non-chronological nature of the film, told with an unreliable twinkle by Harley herself, who frequently rewinds and fast-forwards through the events that don’t pertain to her. Birds of Prey is heavily embedded in Harley’s POV, with splashy pop-art title cards that appear whenever one of Harley’s many enemies appear that show a list of “grievances,” and numerous fantastical interludes that she dreams up when things get dire — one particularly fun one involves a pairing with McGregor in a Marilyn Monroe-inspired “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friends” riff, evoking Moulin Rouge in the best, twisty way.

Director Cathy Yan proves to have a deft hand at bringing Harley’s whimsical perspective to candy-colored life, while blending it seamlessly with the more grisly elements of mob violence and vigilante justice. Yan may be a newcomer to the big-budget blockbuster, but she brings an assured confidence to each stylistic choice, from the fist-pumping needle drops (each a cover of a popular hit by a female artist), to the propulsive action sequences.

The superhero movie industry has become such a well-oiled machine that the action sequences have fallen to second priority to the drama and dialogue, and in many a comic book movie, the division between the sequences can clearly be seen. But rather than resort to fast cuts or CGI-saturated battles, Birds of Prey‘s fight choreography has a touch of the balletic John Wick brutality to it (some of which can be credited to the stunt team 87Eleven, founded by John Wick director Chad Stahelski, who came in as a second unit director), with Yan’s camera holding on wide shots to show off the acrobatic stunts of her stars. It’s one of the best displays of fight sequences in a superhero movie to date. But Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson clearly had a hand in crafting these fight sequences as well, with the battles filled with intimate little moments that work to enrich the complicated character dynamics. During one particularly rousing moment in the climactic battle sequence at an abandoned funhouse, Harley tosses a hair tie to Black Canary after her long hair gets in her face, in a subtle, but beautifully specific, nod to the shared female experience.

Those complicated character dynamics between the women of the film, and the truly hysterical comedy that springs from shoving wildly different women together, helps super-charge the film through some of its lulls. Birds of Prey isn’t burdened with trying to give an empowering portrait of women in all their strengths; it’s more interested in how complex, flawed women will clash and interact. Harley is a joy to watch, and a pain to associate with for anyone who runs into her. Black Canary, who Smollett-Bell plays with a wiry soulfulness, reluctantly saves a drunk Harley from being taken advantage of, but recoils in distaste whenever Harley plays nice with her. Renée Montoya, the detective who Harley jokes speaks like “a bad ’80s movie cop,” is ironclad in her beliefs and mistrusting of Harley throughout. The only one to show Harley any sort of kindness is Cassandra Cain, who quickly grows to admire Harley as a mentor of sorts — the tender, silly moments that Harley and Cassandra share are some of the best interactions of the film.

Even though Birds of Prey is very much Harley’s movie (with Robbie an utterly unhinged delight to watch at every turn), the other three female characters get their due — each receiving a little rapid-fire introduction courtesy of Harley’s zippy narration, but each allowed to show more depth to their personalities outside of their part in the plot. The way the film casually portrays Renée’s sexuality, with Ali Wong appearing as her skeptical ex-girlfriend at the district attorney’s office, is a wonderful piece of character work. Black Canary is given some nuance too, her empathy for Cassandra leading to her turmoil over working for the ruthless Black Mask. Huntress is the least developed of all the lead characters, showing up on the edges of the story to enact vengeance against Zsasz. But in her few appearances, Winstead steals the show, playing the overly serious vigilante with a social awkwardness that feels like a winking joke at the brooding Batman-esque figure.

But where the women feel somewhat anchored to the Earth, McGregor and Messina turn up the camp to 100 with their flamboyant, mutually psychopathic villains. McGregor’s Roman Sionus is cruel, tempestuous, power-hungry, but he’s also a bit of a germaphobe — one of the recurring bits in the film is Roman not blinking an eye at face-peeling gore, but letting out a disgusted “Ew” whenever he sees snot. McGregor’s outrageous performance provides an entertaining watch, but despite his character’s unpredictable nature, McGregor’s Black Mask doesn’t strike the most sinister figure; though one particular scene in which Roman displays his power by making a female guest of his club strip on a table in front of him (in another subtle display of the female gaze from Yan, whose camera only lingers on Roman’s face) is quite chilling. Meanwhile, Messina plays his Victor Zsasz almost like a feral devotee, whose devotion and loyalty to Black Mask is near-romantic. The implicit relationship between Roman and Zsasz is the most interesting part of this villain duo, even if it does play into the long history of queer-coded Batman rogues.

Birds of Prey certainly errs on the side of style over substance — if you dig too far into its flashy surface, you may not find much underneath. It’s not saying anything deep or groundbreaking about the female experience or the nature of revenge. Birds of Prey is reveling in being as gonzo and stylish as it can be. But when the fights are this thrilling and the humor this absurd, whatever’s underneath the surface doesn’t matter all that much.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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