A film review by Craig J. Koban February 15, 2020

 

BIRDS OF PREY 

(AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) jjj

2020, R, 109 mins.

 

Margot Robbie as Harleen Quinzel / Harley Quinn  /  Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Helena Bertinelli / The Huntress  /  Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Dinah Lance / Black Canary  /  Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis / Black Mask  /  Rosie Perez as Detective Renee Montoya  /   Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain  /  Chris Messina as Victor Zsasz

Directed by Cathy Yan  /  Written by Christina Hodson

To quote its full title (takes a deep breath), BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) is like a rainbow hued cocaine fever dream induced comic book film of rampant, insane chaos, quarterbacked by a wickedly loony and absolutely game for anything performance by Margot Robbie and some of the most sensationally realized action set-pieces this side of any JOHN WICK film.  

It's the eighth - and arguably zaniest - film the DC Extended Universe (and now loosely interconnected series of films) and serves as both a direct sequel and soft reboot/spin-off of the critical derided (but not by me) SUICIDE SQUAD from 2016.  Improving upon its antecedent in multiple ways (including a punchier and decidedly more gleefully bloody R-rating), BIRDS OF PREY is a love letter to every DC Comics devotee's favorite resident female lunatic, and as an engine designed to deliver unrelenting mayhem and madcap energy, this team-up effort has few recent equals.

Plus, it really needs to be acknowledged how well ahead of the inclusiveness curve DC films have been in their relative infancy when compared to their direct competition in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  DC was the first to release a large scale and budgeted female solo super hero outing in 2017's superb WONDER WOMAN (just four films into their universe, whereas the MCU took an inexcusable twenty films with their own CAPTAIN MARVEL).  DC is now the first of the two to release an all female super hero team-up film, and a hard adult-rated one to boot.  Plus, DC is the first to release an R-rated all female super hero team-up film written and directed by women, in its case Christina Hodson and Cathy Yan respectively, as well as containing a racially diverse cast that makes up the titular team.  All the feminine powered progressive mindedness in the world, though, is all for naught if the final product isn't any good, and even though BIRDS OF PREY is sometimes too scattershot and high octane in tone (not to mention having a somewhat derivative, self-mocking vibe of DEADPOOL before it), the film most definitely makes up for it on a level of fearless, go-for-broke goofiness that makes it all a pretty infectious thrill ride.

When we last saw Harley Quinn (in a career defining performance and role by Margot Robbie), she was being busted out of the slammer by her boyfriend and Clown Prince of Crime, The Joker (Jared Leto, not returning here), and the opening of BIRDS OF PREY shows the aftermath of SUICIDE SQUAD and how Batman's greatness nemesis decided to royally dump the love of his life just when things were looking good for both of them.  She does what any heartbroken woman would do after a horrible break-up: She lights up and torches a massive chemical factory, adopts a hyena (naming him Bruce, after that "hunky Wayne guy"), and tears the town up on a series of pub crawls.  Even though she's completely emancipated from Mr. J., she's emotionally at rock bottom.  Things go really south for poor Harley when she gets into serious trouble with one nightclub owner, Roman (a ravenously scenery chewing Ewan McGregor), who's not one to be trifled with.  If you cross him the wrong way, Roman unleashes his number two in Zsasz (a well cast against type Chris Messina), who will string his targets upside down and slice their faces off.  Yuck.

 

 

Despite things looking grim for Harley, she desperately pleads with Roman that she can indeed help him retrieve a special and massive diamond worth a fortune in exchange for sparing her life (films like this always have to have a plot moving MacGuffin), and the demonic villain begrudgingly agrees, letting Harley free.  She does manage to pinpoint the diamond's location, but it just happens to be inside a young pickpocket's (Ella Jay Basco) stomach (she lifted it during a random crime spree and, upon realizing its importance, swallowed it for safe keeping).   With the understanding that they're both in serious danger, Harley decides to enlist in some help in Roman's disgruntled driver in Dinah (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who has a very special  (and deadly) vocal gift.  Also on the hunt is a determined and disgraced police detective, Montoya (Rosie Perez), as well as a shadowy vigilante known as Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has very personal reasons for wanting to take down Roman and his empire.  When all of their respective chips are down, all of these women decide that it's better to band together to fend of Roman's goon squad.

On a pure technical level, BIRDS OF PREY is a wondrous audio-visual nirvana, which mixes the noir sensibilities of Gotham City with a pop art sheen.  Cinematographer Matthew Libatique bathes the film with a rich, punk rock band sense of playful color, whereas Erin Benach's wickedly inventive costume deigns have a field day in given Harley a series of carnival inspired getups that embellishes her "I Don't Give a Shit" anarchist edge.  Yan wisely understands the need to pay homage to the this cinematic world's comic book inspired roots, but she doesn't devolve everything into something condescendingly campy akin to, say, Joel Schumacher's BATMAN era films.  BIRDS OF PREY is effervescently bursting with energy and does a sensational job of marrying the previous levels of dark and gritty urban garishness of the past BATMAN films alongside something that looks like an animated film come to live action life.  Yan gives the film a hard hitting and brutal edge while embracing the sheer absurd fantasy elements of Harley's perverse underworld.

This allows Yan and screenwriter Hodson to have same delirious fun in terms of playing up to the schizophrenic and fractured mindset of Harley, which often involves her breaking the fourth wall (mostly in terms of her providing an extended voiceover narration), but also in terms of deconstructing their story's own time chronology (oftentimes, the plot zips back and forth in time because the loose cannoned and hot headed Harley, as a narrator, forgets to slow down and give expositional particulars, which sometimes hilariously leads to the film jumping back and forth from past to present to keep everyone up to speed).  Yan gets extremely clever with some truly inspired set pieces, like a silly, but inspired dream sequence featuring a hallucinating Harley singing and dancing in her own Marilyn Monroe inspired movie musical within a movie.  Not all of the non-stop insanity in BIRDS OF PREY works or scores huge laughs every time, but one must appreciate this film's tenacity to simply go places that most other comic boom fare would never dare.

Most surprising is how exceptionally well oiled this film's action scenes are, and Yan shows herself remarkably adept at wholeheartedly delivering in multiple sequences of effective brute force trauma.  I mentioned earlier that BIRDS OF PREY deserves worthy comparisons to JOHN WICK on a level of action choreography, editorial fluidity, and overall creativity.  This might have something to do with Chad Stahelski (co-director on the first WICK-ian adventure) stepping in to help Yan punch up and improve these moments from the ground up, which has mightily paid off, because BIRDS OF PREY offers up multiple scenes of viscerally satisfying bone bashing, face pummeling, and artery spewing carnage.  One superb set piece - all set within a police station and involving Harley mowing down unsuspecting officers with a shotgun that blasts out some very unique and non-lethal rounds - is a rambunctious delight (it culminates with her snorting up some contraband cocaine contained in an evidence room and then going to town on her prey with a baseball bat in a hyperactive frenzy).  One of the best things about BIRDS OF PREY is that Yan understands that films like JOHN WICK and ATOMIC BLONDE don't rely on overused directorial gimmicks of shaky cam or seizure inducing cuts.  Instead, she lets her camera linger and play out this moments in medium and long shots for us to savor and appreciate the stunt work.

It's easy to overlook just how crazily good Robbie is in this role, which requires her to run an implausibly long emotional gambit in embodying this character: From scene to scene, Harley Quinn segues from being salivatingly hard edged and ruthless to vulnerable and sweet and then back again to fanatical extremes.  One of the smalls miracles of her performance is that she somehow manages to make this psychopath (that leaves a lot of dead and injured bodies in her wake - with some of them asking for it) somehow endearing.  Her performance is about as subtle as a giant mallet shot to the cranium, but she's undeniably brilliant here as this crass, unfiltered, and homicidal clown that's not incapable of having a heart when the situation requires it.  And I love the rest of the female cast built around her, in particular Smollett-Bell as the lethal songstress Black Canary that can give just as good as Harley when needed, not to mention Winstead as the unintentionally funny vigilante that takes herself as seriously as a heart attack and perhaps needs to lighten up a bit in social circles.

Here's the thing, though: This is called BIRDS OF PREY, not HARLEY QUINN, and there are times during the film when some members of this team (like Perez's disgruntled detective) feel a bit too underdeveloped in their own team-up movie.  This is, if anything, a HARLEY QUINN movie that involves her teaming up with a kick assed girl squad late in the game, which may disappoint some.  Plus, McGregor's chief baddie is high on sadistic nerve and histrionic temper tantrums (the actor joyously overplays every scene he's in), but as a well developed antagonist Roman leaves a lot to be desired.  There are also times when BIRDS OF PREY seems too stylistically hyper caffeinated for its own good.  That may or may not be a bad thing, considering just how unruly and fidgety its narrator and lead character is throughout.

Still, BIRDS OF PREY is an audaciously playful ocular assault of frenetic imagery that never once looks back or makes apologies for itself.  Where it lacks in screenplay structure and cohesion it more than makes up for it on a level of unbridled showmanship.  And it's certainly not hard to root on these eclectic group of battle hardened women combining their unique forces together to brutally fend off and dispense the world of the men that have horribly wronged them.  And they have a truly inspired ringmaster in the wide eyed and nuttier than a fruitcake Harley Quinn leading the charge.  BIRDS OR PREY may not be everyone's cup of tea super hero team-up fare, but it deserves mad props for not slavishly playing up to the repetitive sameness of oh-so-many other genre efforts.  It's a glitter shotgun blast to the face as only Harley Quinzel could imagine.  

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