REVIEW: “Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)”

birds of preyBirds of Prey is one of those comic properties that know very little about. While I’ve always been more of a DC fan, and Batman has always been my favorite of the DC heroes, I’ve rarely ventured too far outside of his main title. Of course, I’ve seen some of his various animated films and shows, so I’m familiar with characters like Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya, but I’ve never been introduced to Huntress or Black Canary. So, going into this movie I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The DCEU has a historically uneven track record, with only Wonder Woman and Shazam being particularly good and this film is technically a sequel to the atrocious 2016 Suicide Squad film, so there was certainly no guarantee of quality here. Couple that with the slightly-unusual way the film was promoted and it became quite hard to predict just what kind of film Birds of Prey would be. Luckily, the film is an utter delight from start to finish and ranks among the best entries of the DCEU to date. (Mild spoilers follow!)

Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan
You ever hear the one about the cop, the songbird, the psycho and the mafia princess? “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is a twisted tale told by Harley (Margot Robbie) herself, as only Harley can tell it. When Gotham’s most nefariously narcissistic villain, Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), and his zealous right-hand, Zsasz (Chris Messina), put a target on a young girl named Cass (Ella Jay Basco), the city is turned upside down looking for her. Harley, Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and Renee Montoya’s (Rosie Perez) paths collide, and the unlikely foursome have no choice but to team up to take Roman down.

The first thing that struck me when thinking about Birds of Prey after I saw it was how much I enjoyed the film’s story. Lately, it’s seemed as though comic book movies have forgotten to focus on telling good stories. Some of the early DCEU films, and most of the recent entries in the MCU, have felt more interested in building up their respective universes and setting up future films instead of focusing on telling a good story within a single film. To have a successful universe, you need to tell a successful story in each film. But let’s be clear: Birds of Prey has a really good story. It’s a simple one, but it’s simple and focused and it works really well. Boiled down to its basic elements, the story is just about Harley Quinn trying to find a teenaged pickpocket, Cassandra Cain, who has stolen (and swallowed) a diamond from a Gotham City Crime Lord, Roman Sionis/Black Mask. Once Harley finds Cassandra, the story shifts into one of survival as Harley tries to survive her life in a post-Joker breakup world while trying to keep Cassandra safe from Roman, who intends to kill Cassandra and retrieve his diamond from her. It’s fairly low-stakes, easy to understand, but a lot of fun to watch. There’s something to be said for a comic book film that doesn’t overcomplicate itself and that might be why I enjoyed this story as much as I did. It’s simple, but it just really works and it gets out of its way so the film can focus on being good instead of on delivering a convoluted twist or setting up a future installment. It’s just a lot of fun.

It’s helped out by some genuinely funny jokes – think Deadpool-style humor, but a bit less meta – and some really solid character work for Harley Quinn. This film shouldn’t have been called Birds of Prey because it’s really Harley Quinn’s film. Granted, her name is in the title, but with its placement as the subtitle of the film, you might be tempted to assume she’s more of a supporting character than a lead. But this very much isn’t true. This is a Harley Quinn film featuring the Birds of Prey. And, to be honest, I’m not really complaining because this film really delivers on the promise of a truly good Harley Quinn film. Without spoiling too much of the plot, we get to see how Harley deals with her life in a world where she’s not the Joker’s girlfriend and Birds of Prey delivers a really interesting take on that idea. Here, it’s really easy to root for Robbie’s Harley Quinn. Sure, she’s technically a criminal but she ends up being more of an antihero in this film. She’s truly relatable, instantly charismatic and charming, and someone you could honestly see yourself being friends with. While Birds of Prey continues some of the thematic strands that Suicide Squad introduced, it definitely makes Harley feel like more of a fully-founded character and the film’s depiction of Harley is easily its highlight. Plus Margot Robbie truly shines in this film and it’s so apparent how much love she has for Harley. She brings such energy and joy to her performance and she makes Harley feel like a real person. It’s truly remarkable and it’s so much easier to see here why so many people fell in love with Robbie’s portrayal in the first place.

That’s not to say the rest of the characters aren’t just as interesting, though. While none of them get the kind of screentime that Harley gets, they all manage to make a pretty solid impression even if the lessened screentime for the actual Birds of Prey is among the film’s weaknesses. The guy with the biggest splash, of course, is Ewan McGregor’s Roman. While Roman doesn’t really get a whole lot of depth outside of “he’s a crime lord who cuts people’s faces off,” the character is one of those villains you love to hate and McGregor is simply excellent in this film. He perfectly balances the kind of scene-chewing you’d want from an Ewan McGregor comic book villain with a truly scary side. Roman is not the kind of man you’d want to wrong and McGregor portrays that remarkably, shifting from humor to terrifying rage on a dime. Every single scene with Roman is a standout. On the flip side, Chris Messina’s Zsasz (Roman’s bodyguard/romantic partner/all-around goon) doesn’t make half the impression that McGregor’s Roman does. It’s not that he’s not interesting, but the film doesn’t really do enough with him for him to shine. Messina does a very good job of trying to bring some layers to the character, though, and he’s a lot of fun to watch. Similarly, Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain doesn’t make the biggest splash either, but her interactions with Harley form a lot of the film’s soul and it’s really nice seeing the two of them play off of each other and having their similar backgrounds compared and contrasted. Plus, Basco is a joy to watch.

Then, of course, there are the titular Birds of Prey, themselves. Unfortunately, this really isn’t a Birds of Prey film, so none of these characters get a whole lot to do. Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya and Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary have about equal screen time while Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress is grossly underserved throughout the film. But, again, it’s not that any of these characters are bad or that the actors don’t do a good job – because the characters are really good and the actresses turn in very solid performances; it’s just that the film is so busy being about Harley Quinn that it kind of forgets to do the Birds of Prey stuff. Plus, I suspect the way some of these characters get portrayed in the film will annoy hardcore fans of the comic as, from what little I know of the Birds of Prey’s comic origin, the film seems to take some pretty major liberties with its source material. That being said, it didn’t bother me all that much since I really didn’t have a background with these characters. While I definitely wanted to spend more time with Montoya, Huntress, and Black Canary, I have to say that I loved what we got. Winstead makes a remarkable splash with her extremely limited screentime and I immediately connected with her character. The same is true for both Perez and Smollet-Bell, as Renee Montoya and Black Canary, respectively. Both actresses really committed to their characters and brought their absolute A-Game to their roles. While the film is definitely Harley’s story, it wouldn’t have succeeded half as well without such great performances from these actresses.

As I mentioned earlier, Birds of Prey feels like a sequel to Suicide Squad in many ways – only managing to be a much more enjoyable film than its predecessor. Tonally, it’s very much up the same alley as Suicide Squad. The film’s color palette, though definitely brighter and more saturated than Suicide Squad‘s, is still reminiscent of that film. But, more than that, Birds of Prey‘s editing is eerily reminiscent of Suicide Squad‘s – just significantly better executed. New characters are introduced with similar onscreen graphics and quick-fire montages detailing their backstories but these backstories feel relevant and are well-timed with the introduction of the characters. The entire film is accompanied by a soundtrack of popular music (instead of a more traditional score) but these songs are actually incorporated into the film really well and don’t prove remotely distracting. The action sequences are violent (though not violent enough to get the R-rating; I suspect the film’s cursing is actually what got that rating) but they’re well-choreographed and easy to follow. Cathy Yan has clearly built on the style laid out in Suicide Squad but has elevated it and mixed with her own style, creating a film that’s a lot of fun from a visual standpoint, too. It’s impressive just how well the visual elements work. While I wish Yan had given some of the film’s earlier scenes a bit more room to breathe, it’s hard to argue that she delivered a film with an electric amount of energy, that was mostly well-paced, easy to follow, and visually engaging.

All in all, I really dug Birds of Prey. It’s a simple story, but one that’s executed extremely effectively. It’s easily Margot Robbie’s best performance as Harley Quinn and the film does a superb job of taking audiences into her mind and allowing us the chance to understand what makes her tick. Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask makes for a really compelling bad guy for Harley to square off against – his complete lack of morals makes for a nice foil against a more morally gray character. While the rest of the Birds of Prey don’t get an immense amount of time to shine, they all do make a pretty good impact – enough of one to leave you wanting to see more stories with them. I suspect hardcore fans of the comics might be displeased with some of what this film does, but I can’t deny how much fun I had watching this film. It’s just a good time. And because of how good a time it was, I can honestly say that Birds of Prey ranks up there with Shazam and Wonder Woman as one of the best entries in the DCEU so far. It’s simple, effective, and delightful.

4.5 out of 5 wands.