For a, relatively speaking, light and airy movie, “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn)” sports an exceptionally unwieldy title. It is a title that feels designed to do a lot of heavy lifting for the Worlds of DC or whatever they’re calling their extended universe now. It is a title engineered to let audiences know that the movie is about this new group (in live action film anyway it’s a new group) called the Birds of Prey and that Harley Quinn, whom we all know and love from “Suicide Squad” (or elsewhere, but again, not so much in live action film) is back. Title wise it is “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” all over again. Unlike that debacle, however, “Birds of Prey” (as I will be calling it for the rest of this review) is great fun.
The movie, directed by Cathy Yan, is not, even if the title may indicate it, focused on the Birds of Prey as much as it is centered on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Yes, this is Harley’s story, her story of how she got out from under the Joker’s shadow and began to forge her way in Gotham without anyone else’s protection. Her main external struggle here is with Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis (aka Black Mask), and a promise she makes to him to get a diamond back from a young woman, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), by midnight.
Rather than just telling the story straight, the film, which is written by Christina Hodson, offers up Harley’s point of view and because Harley is not entirely normal, the fashion in which the movie unfolds isn’t either. “Birds of Prey” pauses and rewinds and links things together in mystifying (in a good way) fashion. From an opening bit of animation through the end credits, it twists and turns, constantly leading the audience to see things in a different way and to wonder why they hadn’t before. It is a style that those watching will either love or hate, but which this reviewer found endlessly amusing.
Robbie sells the style, the film, and all the over-the-top antics through what can best be described as utter dedication to the insanity of it all. She makes Harley someone who can be dimwitted one moment and then launch into a brilliant psychological explanation of those around her the next. One never knows exactly what she is about to do in “Birds of Prey,” but it is impossible to not watch.
The actress (who is also a producer on the film) is exceptional and while she is the lead, she is not alone. The Birds, which are formed by the end of the movie, are made up of Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Helena Bertinelli/The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). All wonderful in their roles, it is Winstead’s Huntress who not only stands above the other Birds, but is, inexplicably, given the least amount of screen time. As with Robbie, each actress throws themselves into their part, Winstead perhaps more than the rest. Winstead is able to transition from humorous moments to serious ones with ease, and plays dark and brooding for laughs in the most amusing of fashions.
When it comes time for action sequences, and there are many here, “Birds of Prey” doesn’t skimp on the blood or the four-letter words or, far more importantly, the sense of enjoyment. The movie succeeds not because Harley and her compatriots are forced to make hard decisions about what they want in their lives (although they do), but in moments such as a fight sequence where Harley finds new energy after the cocaine she’s hiding behind is punctured and she gets a big whiff of the powder. It is all so over the top, but in the best of ways.
So much of the kudos for the film lie with Yan, Hodson, and Robbie. They have given us an entirely different Gotham than the one we’ve regularly see on the big screen since Tim Burton’s take in 1989. This is a Gotham that is as colorful as Harley herself. It is a bright city in the daylight and, when scenes do take place at night, everything that happens in them is still clearly visible. The movie’s doesn’t spend time trying to convincing the audience that the doings in Gotham are dark and gritty and serious by making it shadowy and desaturated, it rests on lively performances, insane moments of action, and the sense that everyone on screen is having an absolute blast.
Barely touched on above is McGregor who delivers a truly memorable performance as Black Mask, as does Chris Messina in his role as Victor Zsasz. The parts could simply be a means to an end (easy foils for Harley’s redemption), but both McGregor and Messina do more with them. They create lively villains and make the roles their own, offering a middle ground between dark-and-gritty takes and fully comedic ones.
It would be easy to end the review at this point, give the whole thing five stars and just walk away. Never being one for the easy route, I must note that despite the sense of wonder and incredible fun “Birds of Prey” imparts, it also winds up feeling rather lightweight, even for an airy comic book adaptation. The diamond is a MacGuffin, to be sure, but it’s a nearly invisible one and for a movie that clocks in under two hours, there is still a lot of meandering. When the climax of the film does come, it doesn’t feel appropriately built to, and there’s a definite feeling that it could just be another (tremendously fun) action sequence. Some of this is built into the movie due to the narrative aping Harley’s style, but it still feels somewhat less than fully formed.
So, no, “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn)” isn’t perfect. What it is, however, is an hugely enjoyable comic book movie with a cast that gives it their all from first to last. A most definitely R-rated affair, it isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t make it any less special.
photo credit: Warner Bros.