Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey | 2020 | rated R | starring Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina | directed by Cathy Yan | 1 hr 49 mins |
The tonal folley’s of DC Comic’s attempt to build a cinematic universe have been well documented. It started with the brooding Zach Snyder films before DC was pushed kicking and screaming to chase Marvel and Deadpool box office by lightening things up. First it was purely cosmetic with miserable downers like Suicide Squad and Justice League given color correction and then pushed to full comedy with David Sandberg’s fun Shazam! and the lighter Aquaman. Now, both of those sides actually manage to come together beautifully in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), a fun, visually delightful, cartoonish and decidedly R-rated film that for the first time in this recent DC series seems to be the result of a singular vision and creative inspiration and not a boardroom of executives chasing fads and focus grouping the film to death.
That mid-budget indie vision comes from director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson (of the terrible Shut In, Unforgettable and the ok Bumblebee) who muti-task the film effortlessly to fulfill mandates of making both a spin-off of Robbie’s terrific take on the character in Suicide Squad and a set-up to any future Birds of Prey sequels. The question was, is Robbie’s performance in Squad such a stand-out because the rest of the movie around her is so drab and lifeless? Birds answers it. Robbie actually is great as Harley Quinn. She was the only one in Suicide Squad who gave a damn and was having a blast doing it. She anchors this film and the assembling of the Birds of Prey around her form a satisfying ensemble.
The plot: Harley Quinn broke up with Joker at the end of Suicide Squad (I think) and she declares her newfound relationship status publicly, which without the Joker’s protection puts a hit on her head from every thug, roller derby opponent and street vendor she’s maimed or swindled. This intersects her with the town’s other night club owning mafioso Roman (Ewan McGregor, camping it up), his new driver, lounge singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a crossbow assassin who just arrived in town (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a cop on all of their trails (Rosie Perez) and a young girl who has stolen Roman’s precious diamond. That the film’s plot is wonderfully complicated, but weaves together smoothly is another feather in it’s cap. One of the best performances in the film also goes to Chris Messina, barely recognizable as one of Roman’s goons/lover(?).
Yan weaves it all together with Quinn as our forgetful, unreliable narrator, sending the story back and forth in time, dropping out of the narrative to give us everyone’s back story. None of the mechanics of this are new, Quinn’s narration is kind of perfunctory and the film’s first act assembly is it’s weakest stuff. The action set pieces are actually superior to most other DC movies. Quinn spins and jump-kicks her way around parking garages and carnivals with ruthless efficiency. She strides through a police station with her “fun gun” blowing out bean bags, glitter and color smoke in a gorgeous set piece. When the Birds gather in an amusement park for a battle it’s a visual trip more akin to the quirkier Tim Burton Batman movies than something we’ve seen lately.
And speaking of Batman, while Jared Leto’s Joker has been scrubbed from the film (even flashbacks of Suicide Squad), Birds of Prey gives us a tour around Gotham City’s sites unlike what we’ve seen before. Instead of Gotham just being Chicago or New York, Yan builds up a Gotham in the third act that looks more like the comic book world. The amusement park, The Booby Trap, Founder’s Pier, all add the quirky worldbuilding of the Batman universe these movies have not even hinted at lately. That’s just one of the reasons the third act of this movie is wonderful.
Birds of Prey starts out feeling very self conscious and it warmed on me in a big way getting better as it goes. Upon release Ewan McGregor came out and made this political: You need to go see a movie made by and starring women or you are a sexist. I’d venture to guess that Yan and Hobson don’t want to hear people should see this movie because they are women. They’d probably prefer to hear this: People should see Birds of Prey because they have made, to date, the best movie in the current D.C. Universe.