Even the most die-hard fans usually admit Suicide Squad is a mess. Which makes sense when, after the fact, we heard stories of major studio interference, multiple edits, and all kinds of meddling. Still, one of the high points is that it introduced us to Margot Robbie’s incarnation of Harley Quinn. A frenetic blast of chaotic energy as part of an ensemble, she’s back to lead the show herself in director Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. And it is a damn fine time. Goofy and ridiculous, fast-paced and fun, Birds of Prey leans harder than expected into its R-rating. All to its benefit.
In the wake of earlier events, Harley Quinn needs to get herself right. A large part of this means severing ties to her longtime paramour, the Joker. Let’s just say, maybe she’s not emotionally equipped to deal with a breakup in a rational, healthy fashion, and her way of dealing with self-doubt and being let down and dismissed goes spectacularly off the rails.
One of the main drawbacks of this emancipation is that Harley no longer has the protection her association with Mr. J. afforded her. As a result, the many, many, many parties she’s aggrieved over the years come out of the woodwork for a spot of payback. Chief among these are crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), also known as the Black Mask, and his gleefully sadistic sidekick/life partner Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina).
Through a convoluted series of events, and a desire for self-preservation, Harley strikes an uneasy alliance with a crew of other women that includes Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), better known as Black Canary, and the young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
The plot of Birds of Prey basically serves as a swirling mass to push these women together. Each has been damaged and marginalized in her own way. No one views Harley as anything but a sidekick to be tolerated. Montoya starts out as a cop, only to, time and again, be passed over for promotion, have her ideas ignored or stolen by the men around her, and never seen as an equal. A foster kid lost and forgotten by the system, Cassandra does what she has to in order to survive. Trapped in a thankless job, Dinah’s bosses only use her for what they can. And Huntress has her own reasons for revenge and issues with people taking her seriously.
Their chemistry is both antagonistic and sisterly as they realize over the course of Birds of Prey that they need to work together. Harley is unhinged and manic, but also surprisingly earnest and heartfelt, with an undying love for breakfast sandwiches. Robbie has an absolute blast fronting the picture. Montoya is a tough, cliché-spouting detective, but Perez brings a nuanced world-weariness and palpable frustration at the glass ceiling to the surface. Basco and Smollett-Bell are tough and funny. Everyone gets enough to do, and no one feels shortchanged or flat.
As great as the others are, however, Winstead gets the MVP trophy. Huntress may be a leather-clad badass tearing around town on a roided-out motorcycle, but she’s also dealing with a deep trauma that left her fueled by rage and emotionally stunted. She’s super awkward, and her social ineptitude leads to some of the best bits in the movie.
McGregor and Messina are the perfect baddies and foils, managing to be both comic book-y and authentically terrifying at the same time. McGregor dives headfirst into scene-chewing villainy, both over the top flamboyant and blood-chilling. Messina plays Zsasz almost as deranged as Harley—he’ll peel off your face and giggle with a childish glee the whole time. The pair has a fantastic dynamic, power-hungry and vicious, but also earnest and romantic.
Birds of Prey does have a few narrative hiccups. Too often early on, Christina Hodson’s script pulls the, “Just a minute, let’s rewind,” trick to introduce key players. Though a bit clunky initially, that thankfully dissipates after the first act. From there, the film does a solid job of balancing the various threads and arcs—we never lose sight of anyone for any significant stretch. Even the speedbumps are relatively minor, and a brisk pace and rapid tempo carry us through without stumbling.
The action in Bird of Prey is strong and coherent, better than most superhero movies with a fraction of the budget of its counterparts. Since the movie doesn’t generally deal with powered folks, it’s also one of the most grounded and realistic of the DC movies. Yan brought in the team from 87eleven Action Design, the company founded by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch—the filmmakers behind John Wick, among many other standout action movies—and it shows. As a result, the elaborate fights sequences are meticulously staged and tightly choreographed.
Because it’s more reality-based kind of action, these scenes never devolve into muddy, CGI-heavy jumbles where bodies flip around and look like videogame cut scenes—an issue that plagues so many superhero movies. Even as a climactic chase cranks things up to bonkers levels, there remains an edge of realism and practicality that sells them the world of Birds of Prey even more.
Thanks to an R-rating, Birds of Prey never shies away from the violence or vulgarity. Yan and company balance a bubble-gum pop aesthetic with raw, visceral brutality. They’re certainly not afraid to break a few bones or crack a dirty joke, which only adds to the party.
I dig how the DC slate of films has developed lately. Not every movie needs to come from the same template or play like the next chapter in a bigger story. There’s room for dark and dour, like Batman v Superman, as well as the bug-nuts spectacle of Aquaman. They’re not afraid to let movies be different from one another. We can get a wash of greys one time and an eye-popping burst of Day-Glo the next, and each has its place with stories that play to a property’s strengths.
And that’s what Birds of Prey does best, it knows what it’s all about and goes for it. Harley is ditzy and violent, but also has a Ph.D., a duality that shines through. This is a story of broken hearts and broken bones, of female friendship and bonding through shared struggles, of crazy action and earnest connection. Most of all, it’s a goddamned good time and if they want to get the band back together for more, I’m there.
Birds Of Prey Review Score
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