During the desperate race to catch up with Marvel Studios in the cinematic universe arms race, the DC extended universe got itself entangled trying to unite its disparate movies with a specific tone (dour and dark) and a continuity that was both inorganic and overstuffed. Early on in the irreverent and manic Birds of Prey the previously Suicide Squad-affiliated Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) sends an oil tanker into her criminal ex-boyfriend’s origin-story-based factory, symbolically severing Quinn’s ties with the larger DC universe and propelling her into a star vehicle of her own. Witnessing this is as liberating as that sounds.
After an admittedly exhilarating opening animated sequence in which Harley catches us up to what has transpired since her appearance in Suicide Squad (which conveniently means one does not have to revisit that movie) the plot of Birds of Prey does struggle to get into gear. Yet I struggle to call that a criticism of the movie because this is almost entirely because Harley, as our less-than-reliable narrator, is such a scattershot mind and a compulsive stinker that we can hardly fault her for not being able to tell a story straight. Having broken up with the Joker, it is apparently open-season on Harley Quinn and Robbie is simply effortless in playing the walking mayhem that is her character as she claws her way desperately to survive her new status. Her Quinn is crazy, but she is also smart, resourceful, and in her own twisted way capable of compassion and emotion. She is more than compelling enough that we are willing to forgive the muddled way she gets the first act going.
The confusing opening act at least lets us get to know the rest of her supporting cast, each of whom is excellent in their own right whether it is the cynical cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), the mysterious Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a conflicted Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a young pickpocket Cass Cain (Ella Jay Basco) who ends up being the human Macguffin of the piece. This movie is delightful in how it explicitly and boldly is female fronted with only the villain Roman Sionis (an excellent Ewan McGregor) and his assistant Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), a pair of wonderfully hammy B-list supervillains, being the only real male presences that aren’t one-dimensional idiots (a welcome change from the countless action movies with mere cardboard cutouts of female characters).
The first wave of long-overdue female-fronted superhero movies like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel were groundbreaking but were shackled in that they had to tell their origin stories within the generic confines of a traditional “superhero” movie. What makes Birds of Prey feel like such a breath of fresh air is that director Cathy Yan is entirely uninterested in dressing up her female superhero group in the male-gazey conventions of the genre, and instead grounds her story in the reality of the female experience. When we see our heroes grab for scrunchies instead of impractical-but-shapely body armor, when we see them motivated to protect and survive rather than swoop in as beloved saviors, and when the pump-up soundtrack of choice is “Barracuda” and not “Just a Girl”, it cannot help but feel like a revolutionary event and that perhaps we have witnessed a new way to tell a superhero story. Not that Birds of Prey is without faults. In trying to break the old mould, the movie does in places struggle to figure out how to replace conventions. The first act’s clunkiness is perhaps the greatest example of this but look closely enough and you can find remnants of experiments that were tried and left on the editing room floor, such as a Quinn hallucinatory experience that was clearly meant to hold a much bigger role in the original movie. Yan’s commitment to break out into new directions should be commended, but it does leave the movie feeling much messier than it has to be.
Fortunately like a struggling bicycle that finally gets into gear, the movie sings once all the elements click as our characters begin to coalesce and more importantly the fighting begins. With Jonathan Eusebio and Jon Valera, the stunt and fight coordinators responsible for John Wick, handling the fight sequences, it is safe to say that Birds of Prey does not pull any punches and more than earns its “R” rating. The battles are the highlight of the movie, unfolding with all the organized mayhem of a Looney Tunes cartoon with impacts that will certainly make you in equal parts wince and cheer. Each action scene effectively energizes the movie more and more, leading to a story that climaxes in a frenzied mad-house glory that, in a rare feeling for a superhero movie, leaves you wishing the movie didn’t end as soon as it does.
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is ultimately exactly what you might expect from a movie with such a title. It is scattered, arch, incapable of being serious, and entirely minute in its scope. But this is precisely its charm. The movie may not be for everyone and requires that you find Quinn’s eccentricities appealing, but it is undeniably a unique breath of fresh air shaking up a genre that too often leans on the familiar. Be warned thought: this movie will cause an unending desire for an egg sandwich.
Runtime: 109 minutes
Directed by Cathy Yan
Written by Christina Hodson
Starring Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ewan McGregor, Ella Jay Basco, Chris Messina, Ali Wong.