Cathy Yan steps into the spectacular realm of superheroes with a wild ride of a film full of chaos and insanity that straps you in and never lets you go. “Birds of Prey” is the latest installment in the troubled DCEU (or whatever they’re calling it these days) and places Margot Robbie’s wonderful Harley Quinn at the forefront with a batch of fresh faces for a nearly two-hour film that is a solid entry for the franchise. With shades of its predecessors, the entire cast and crew of “Birds of Prey” unite to construct a strange rollercoaster of a film that basks in its outrageous style with no retrains and no regrets. When the bubble of superhero films continues to inflate every passing year, it is truly refreshing to watch something in the genre that does not take itself too seriously or have the job of building off of past films and setting up new storylines for the future. “Birds of Prey” is as wacky as its full name would suggest; it is a film that takes the characters and locals of the historical DC Universe and views them through a lens of lunacy that will either make audiences laugh or cringe (I experienced the former).
“Birds of Prey” writer, Christina Hodson crafts a script that brings the legendary Birds of Prey team to the screen eighteen years after their last live-action incarnation. The story picks up with our titular “hero” Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) as she narrates the life events that have led to her downward spiral since her untimely breakup with the clown prince of crime himself, the Joker. This breakup has shattered Harley’s heart, but given her a new lease on life; a fresh start to define herself as not just the “Joker’s girl”. For the time being, Harley takes refuge in Roman Sionis’ aka Black Mask’s (Ewan McGregor) nightclub where she becomes acquainted with the talented and lovely singer, Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) as well as the prideful psychotic killer, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). However, in a final effort to destroy the fragments of her past life, Harley decides to demolish the binding place that sealed Harley and Joker’s love, Ace Chemicals. The nearby explosion rattles a force of GCPD officers as they are investigating a grizzly murder by committed by the hands of a vigilante known only as, the crossbow killer. Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) hurries over to the ruins of Ace Chemicals and discovers Harley’s broken necklace; she quickly realizes that without the Joker’s blanket of protection she is in real trouble. Once the grungy criminal underground of Gotham City becomes privy to this news, Roman not only sends his goons on a search to uncover a diamond that holds the secrets to the Bertinelli family fortune, but he decides that going after Harley is also of the utmost importance; because with both objects, he would surely rule over all of Gotham. Through several moments of misfortune, Harley, Dinah, Renee, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), and Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) all cross paths and must come together with a common cause and assemble to become the Birds of Prey.
Despite “Birds of Prey” not being a direct sequel to 2016’s “Suicide Squad”, it is hard to not compare the two seeing as how on the outside, a lot of the DNA infused in both films crosses streams almost directly. Production designer K.K. Barrett, art director Kasra Farahani, and costume designer Erin Benach take all of their immense talents and come together to create a world of insanity and madness that displays a visual style that is wild and unmistakable. Every frame is packed with a rich spectrum of color, every set is dressed with a personal approach that focuses on character, and all of the costumes pay homage to their comic book counterparts while making them one of a kind with their own unique flairs. On a visual level, “Birds of Prey” stands out from the bland pack of superhero films that flood the market today. The R rating of the movie is another key factor that helps separate itself from the myriad of other films in its genre; sadly, it is not fully used to its full potential. Within the very first ten minutes of the film, a least fifty (probably an exaggeration) f-bombs are dropped simply because it is allowed. The language can at times be seen as a bit juvenile when an expletive must be said within every other line of dialogue. Yet, despite the language feeling excessive and not adding to much of the film, the action is certainly propped up by its rating. In “Birds of Prey” the bombastic and erratic action that explodes on-screen is fast and deliberate. The individual set-pieces leading up to the third act are sparse while being quick as to not overstay their welcome; which is a plus. We as the audience get an understanding of the combat styles each of the “Birds” employ which is helpful for us to understand what tools each member has in their kit. Harley’s brutal close-quarters style makes her a baseball bat-wielding ballerina, Canary’s martial art techniques along with her sonically charged screams make her a massive threat, and Huntress’ swift fleet-footed movements and mini crossbow give her a distinct range advantage that many of her fellow “Birds” can not cover. When all of the “Birds” come together combining their individual skill sets in the final act against Black Mask, Yan perfectly encapsulates that fierce violence and paints a memorable scene of blood and fun. However, no matter how much fun the spectacle of the film may be, the script does a disservice to the other “Birds” as they hardly get enough screen-time and are never developed in a meaningful way. Everyone outside of Harley evokes the same kinds of emotions at the beginning of the film as they do at the end. With some minor changes sprinkled throughout, most of the characters are depicted as being extremely one-note meaning anyone going into this film who is not already a fan of DC Comics, may not be as interested in them or their stories. Nonetheless, “Birds of Prey” bathes in its own extravagant chaos from start to finish which is an attribute that must be commended.
Although “Birds of Prey” does not utilize all its characters in fantastic ways, there are certainly some standouts that can not go overlooked. Both Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina who play Roman Sionis and Victor Zsasz respectively, deliver two performances that are truly exceptional. McGregor takes the traditional stale mob boss character of Roman and turns him into a deranged, unhinged, psychopath hell-bent on striking fear into anyone who opposes him while showcasing his malevolent power for all to see. Every scene McGregor partakes in is one he instantly steals with the haunting performance he delivers through the atrocious acts he unabashedly loves to engage in. McGregor and by extension Roman, is a true showman with a ton of baggage that is all used to exhibit a true sinister debonair devil. Then there is Messina who plays Roman’s right-hand man Victor Zsasz. Messina’s performance as this psychopath makes him one of the best characters in “Birds of Prey”. His unsettling dialogue, tone, and mannerisms will make you feel uncomfortable with every repulsive action he partakes in. Messina flawlessly plays alongside McGregor that bolsters his performance (and vice versa) creating a villainous force that is as remarkable as it is menacing.
Any discussion around “Birds of Prey” can not be complete without talking about Margot Robbie’s deep involvement with the project. Robbie had been shepherding the idea for a “Birds of Prey” standalone film starring Harley Quinn for several years before a script was drafted or pre-production even began. Robbie had a detailed plan she believed in and stuck with it until the studio gave her the green light. Her intimate involvement shows as she not only helped produce the project, but she also takes center stage. In many ways “Birds of Prey” feels like a completely standalone film for Robbie’s whimsical portrayal of Harley Quinn to burst free; which is not a mark against the film as Robbie takes the complexities of this character to new and exciting heights. Robbie takes many emotional leaps forward evolving this character beyond simple eye candy (as she was utilized in “Suicide Squad”) which is greatly appreciated. Robbie embodies this role with all of her essence and it is appearing as though that in the same way we view Robert Downey Jr. as the Tony Stark, I believe Margot Robbie will be looked at in that same light as the one true, Harley freaking Quinn.
“Birds of Prey” is a sporadic film that is a blast of fun. The entire cast and crew all bring their best to create a superhero film that feels like nothing the genre has ever seen. Although at times the film will push in a certain direction that can feel a bit unbearable, it always quickly recognizes its strengths and pushes onward showcasing its best attributes. Despite a lackluster script and stunted character development, all of the performances are serviceable with a handful that are absolutely impeccable. “Birds of Prey” is a film that is not ashamed of itself nor anything it says or does which is a truly refreshing revitalization that is sorely needed in this bloated cookie-cutter genre that we have all grown accustomed to; that being the “superhero film”. However, IF we ever see the Birds of Prey unify once more, the other members will need to be further developed and propped up in order to play on Harley’s level.