Following a series of critical flops with “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad,” DC and Warner Bros have finally hit their stride. Their first major success with “Wonder Woman” was promptly followed up by the campy success of “Aquaman,” the family fun hero “Shazam” and the dark character study “Joker.” Now DC returns with “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” and as the title may suggest, it is filled with the wonderful absurdity of the film’s titular villain.
The film follows Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) as she fights to survive the onslaught of Gotham’s criminal underworld following her breakup with the Joker and the loss of his protection. Unfortunately for her, one criminal that wants Harley dead is the sadistic crime boss Roman Sionis, also known as Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). In order to save herself and win Sionis’ favor, she agrees to find a valuable diamond he lost and return it to him. As Harley pursues the young pickpocket who stole the diamond, audiences are introduced to a slew of female protagonists whose stories each coalesce around Harley.
The narrative of “Birds of Prey” is relatively cut and dry as Harley is in pursuit of the diamond only to inevitably find herself back in the crosshairs of the cruel Black Mask. However, the way in which the film executes the plot is unique and representative of the film’s narrator, Harley Quinn. Told by the unhinged and wild villain herself, the story structure matches her mental state. As the film progresses, Harley often interrupts and pulls us away from the film to introduce audiences to new characters. Though at times jarring, these detours shine a light on the supporting cast while also offering us different perspectives on past scenes. To some this may seem overly chaotic and distracting, but when taken with the film’s overall tone and direction, it feels somehow natural. The disjointed narrative perfectly matches Quinn’s chaotic nature while never deviating too far from the film’s central plot. Furthermore, though this film is clearly Harley Quinn’s movie, its diverse cast of supporting characters for the most part manage to deliver memorable performances.
Leading this film is none other than Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. Robbie’s perfromance as the Joker’s girlfriend was perhaps the best part of the critical flop that was “Suicide Squad,” and she continues to nail the character here. This time, however, she is unshackled from Jared Leto’s Joker and permitted to let loose and explore her own individuality. As the film’s clear lead, Robbie manages to carry the movie throughout as she continues to succeed in capturing the character’s inherent gleeful absurdity and fun loving brutality. Supporting Harley are the titular Birds of Prey: Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Though each of these four protagonists varied in their amount of screentime, each were given their moment to shine. The two most impressive members of the Birds of Prey were Canary and Cain, each given ample amount of time to shine on screen. Smollet-Bell delivered on a strong and confident portrayal of the comic book heroine as she learned to be a hero despite being surrounded by so much evil. Basco’s Cassandra Cain worked well opposite Harley Quinn as she became a protegee to the villainess. Rounding out the protagonists was: Huntress, who had little screentime until the end, and Renee Montoya, a complex and compelling character from the comics who came across as more of a detective stereotype at times. That said, the film makes an effort to make light of this stereotype by continuously pointing it out and making jokes about it.
Additionally, it is worth shining a light on Ewan McGregor’s campy and menacing performance as the film’s villain, Black Mask. True to his comic origins, McGregor’s Black Mask is a sadistic crime boss that takes particular joy from inflicting pain upon his perceived enemies. Furthermore, McGregor portrays the character as deeply paranoid and on a hair trigger as the slightest indiscretion can set him off on a violent outburst. Supporting McGregor in the villain category is Chris Messina as the killer Victor Zsasz. Where McGregor’s performance was respectful of the source material, Messina’s begins to deviate drastically. Rather than being an insane serial killer stalking the streets of Gotham, instead he’s a hired hitman and associate of Black Mask. Though that may not annoy many casual fans, it felt unnecessary for that role to be Zsasz rather than some other comic hitman.
Coupling this colorful cast and insane story are spectacular moments of creatively choreographed fight scenes. Thanks to the last minute addition of “John Wick” director Chad Stahelski as second unit director, many of the film’s fight scenes were touched up in reshoots. The result is thrilling as each fight makes wonderful use of the scene’s environment. Reminiscent of the “John Wick” franchise, anything in the scene could be used as a weapon or obstacle, making for fast-paced and adrenaline-fueled combat. Each successive fight is both animated and hilarious, as demonstrated by one moment where Harley inhales cocaine in order to give her an extra edge in a fight. The fight choreography is exciting as each altercation is different from the last and accompanied by a stellar soundtrack that adds to the excitement and makes each battle unique.
“Birds of Prey” is a welcomed addition to the steadily increasing amount of quality superhero (and supervillain) films made by DC. The film embraces the inherent insanity of Harley Quinn and does so to great effect. Visually appealing, the film is filled with bright colors, magnificent set pieces and amazingly shot fight scenes that are also coupled with a killer soundtrack. The cast of characters are sure to draw audiences in and are likely to keep them there as the majority of them deliver on both the action and comedy.
Verdict: “Birds of Prey” is another success for DC and Warner Bros that delivers on a wild and crazy ride with Margot Robbie’s colorfully chaotic Harley Quinn at the wheel. A great cast and spectacular fight scenes make for a fun movie going experience.