Recommendation: This is stylized popcorn fun with a strong sense of who it is and what it stands for. 8/10.
IMDB Synopsis: After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord.
Movies based on comic book IP come in all shapes and sizes. While most are studio crafted, anodyne moneymakers, there are many that are bad, and only a few manage to stand on their own as original works of cinema. And while Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn likely won’t embed itself in the cultural commentary like Black Panther or Spiderman (Toby Maguire years), chalk it up as a very good, very fun, chaotic comic book derivative that is distinctly original. In fact, Birds of Prey not only rises above the stink of its rank predecessor Suicide Squad, director Cathy Yan has created a film with such raw, turbulent energy that it refuses to be ignored. BoP is mostly very fun, only a little too self aware, and features a color palette so kaleidoscopic that you’ll never want to watch another grey Marvel movie.
It’s not mandatory to see Suicide Squad prior as Birds of Prey succinctly brings the viewer up to speed. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is a manic, fun loving, PhD- and bat-wielding psychopath who has just split from her boyfriend, The Joker, in explosive fashion. Not the grimy, depressing Joaquin Phoenix version but the completely bonkers Jared Leto version. And with Harley on her own, the entire city is coming for her which introduces the big bad of the film, Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) playing an eccentric, sociopathic crime lord with delusions of grandeur. Essentially a chaotic evil version of Zaphod Beeblebrox. McGregor is a delight, chewing scenery and having as much fun as ever, joined by his a psycho-sexualized right hand man Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina in dyed blonde hair).
Plot aside, Harley is joined by the titular birds: Huntress (an awkward and as always incredible Mary Elizabeth Winstedt), a crossbow-wielding badass who is out for revenge. Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is Roman’s driver with a soft spot for Harley and a voice that kills. And Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a street hardened cop with no fucks left to give and a big beef with Sionis. Since BoP is a still a superhero/comic flick, there’s a McGuffin to chase in the form of mischievous, sticky fingered teen Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) who stole and then swallowed the Bertinelli diamond from Zsasz.
The plot isn’t doing anything new, mostly a lot of chalk, but what we do get throughout the film are incredible action sequences that feel grounded, inventive, and are shown in much longer takes than we’re accustomed to seeing. Concepted as John Wick-style fights, director Cathy Yan enlisted Wick director Chad Stahelski to collaborate and help shoot the action scenes. The move pays off in spades as viewers are treated to brutally delightful CQC, with the R-rating blood and violence gleefully pasted on screen. In a world of overpowered superheroes, beams of light baddies, and Deus Ex Machina powers, Birds blissfully avoids this cliché, mostly.
To be sure, the discourse leading up to Birds of Prey was fraught: A female antihero lead, director by a female POC, leading a cast of little-known female comic characters is a Venn Diagram of internet hate. But Cathy Yan directing Margot Robbie and co. have crafted a film that’s all at once empowering to the female leads (and audience) without pandering and doesn’t feature unearned girl power moments like Marvel’s tone deaf misses in Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel (yes, you know the scenes). Given the microscope (and crosshairs) trained on this film, Birds is a a smashing success for the DC moviemaking machine, which has turned itself into the weirdly and fun (and usually bonkers) alternative to Marvel with films like this, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam!.
Certainly, Birds isn’t perfect. The technicolor vignettes take you out of the moment a little too abruptly, and the self-awareness seems to a bit too on the nose at times. The plot is fairly rote, and the villain—despite McGregor’s deliciously hammy performance—is bland. But those quibbles pale in comparison to the pure fun and distinct voice that the film is adding to the superhero canon. Let’s hope that DC gives the Birds of Prey cast and director Cathy Yan another swing in this universe, it’s too much fun to leave at just one installment.
MVP: Margot Robbie as the titular Harley Quinn is fabulous. Not surprising given her body of work, but she really gets to flex her acting chops in this Cathy Yan joint. Physical, comedic, manic, sad and empowering all at once.
Highlights: The action is brutal and inventive, a nice departure from superhero flicks of late (as aforementioned). Also, everything about The Huntress (and the wonderful Mary Elizabeth Winstedt), who should have a prequel on her own.
Director: Cathy Yan
Studio: Warner Bros. // Original release date: February 7, 2020