Birds Of Prey Review – A Neon-Soaked Delight

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Birds of Prey–or, more formally: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn–had a lot stacked against it from the jump. For years, it seemed locked in its own special development hell after its titular character, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), got off to a rough start with the critical and box office flop Suicide Squad. And with movies like Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam providing an altogether different energy that was wholly disconnected from just about everything Justice League and before in the DCEU, fans were left wondering whether there was room for Harley Quinn in this new era of the DCEU.

The answer, it turns out, is simple, and written in huge, blood-splattered neon paint across the big screen by director Cathy Yan: Yes, absolutely. Birds of Prey is a joyfully violent and clever romp through the streets of a Gotham City that is unlike anything we’ve seen in the DCEU, past or present–and what’s more, it serves as an unexpected bridge between old and new, pulling bits and pieces from the ghosts of movies fans would rather forget and remixing them into something that feels fresh and brimming with a sense of forward momentum.

Birds of Prey tells the story of Harley’s life after she broke up with the Joker–or, perhaps more accurately, after the Joker broke up with her–and weaves it in with a slew of fresh faces. Harley’s not exactly thrilled to be living life solo and is handling it with typical Harley flair–lots of drinking, some Roller Derby, a dash of property damage and assault, the works. Her tailspin finds her regularly languishing in the private club of Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), AKA Black Mask, a not-so-secret criminal overlord who has only barely tolerated Harley’s antics under the assumption that the Joker is protecting her. But with Joker out of the equation, Sionis, along with every other cop, criminal, or otherwise Harley-aggrieved Gothamite, realizes it’s open season on the Clown Queen of Crime.

This rather unfortunate turn of events sweeps Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), one of the last good police on the force, into the picture as she tries to build a case against Sionis. Her informant, Dinah Lance AKA Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who has been working as a singer at Sionis’s club, is similarly pulled into the chaos in Harley’s wake. The two of them wind up on a collision course with teenage pick-pocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) after she accidentally nicks something of great value from Sionis’s right-hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). Thankfully, Cass’s poorly timed sticky fingers give Harley a chance to barter her way off of Sionis’s kill list–but not before a Gotham City newcomer, Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who calls herself Huntress (a name that just won’t seem to stick, much to her chagrin) joins the fray. Bertinelli isn’t specifically out for Harley or Sionis, but she’s more than happy to cut anyone down if they get in the way of her plot for revenge.

Birds of Prey cleverly assigns each of its characters a specific film genre to keep them distinct from one another. Montoya has stepped out of an ’80s cop drama with over-the-top dialogue to match. Lance is from a sexy crime thriller–she feels almost like a James Bond femme fatale. Cain is the scrappy, bubble-gum cracking street kid from the world’s most R-rated take on Newsies. Bertinelli believes herself to be the protagonist of a deadly serious samurai flick but just can’t seem to get anyone to buy what she’s selling. Meanwhile, both Sionis and Zsasz are doing their best take on Scarface by way of a flamboyant comedy.

The entire ensemble delivers on their assigned tropes, absolutely committed to their respective bits to spectacular effect. McGregor and Winstead’s laugh-out-loud melodrama are standouts next to Robbie herself, who gives Harley every possible ounce of manic Looney Tunes-flavored energy she has.

Throughout the movie, Harley regularly breaks the fourth wall to announce details directly to the audience, rewind the story, shuffle the order of events, or throw in her typical brand of off-beat, raunchy humor. Stylistically, the comparisons to Fox and Marvel’s Deadpool movies can’t be missed. After all, both Harley and Wade Wilson exist in a similar niche within superhero comics as wise-cracking, irreverent meta-jokesters and anti-heroes. But, if anything, while Deadpool focuses its jokes on commentary about the superheroes, Birds of Prey gleefully participates in the genre. It’s not really trying to say anything, but that’s OK. The movie is having way too much fun with itself to try and make a bigger point about blockbuster franchises or to have an opinion on the Marvel vs. DC rivalry.

It also deftly avoids plucking at any low-hanging DCEU fruit. Birds of Prey is definitely a movie that exists thanks to films like Suicide Squad–Robbie’s Harley wouldn’t be here without it, and the movie never tries to pretend otherwise–but it’s not interested in making anyone relive those earlier movies more than they need to, even for the sake of a punchline. Instead, Birds shakes down the stories that came before it for loose exposition and barrels on, full steam ahead.

But surprising, fresh humor and self-awareness aren’t the only things Birds has on offer. The aforementioned ultraviolence comes care of some truly outrageous fight scenes. A car chase on roller skates? Check. A police evidence locker brawl that ends in a cloud of cocaine while a remix of Ram Jam’s Black Betty blares? Check. A massive showdown in the world’s coolest funhouse? Check, check, and check. The influence of John Wick franchise director Chad Stahelski, who came in at the behest of Cathy Yan to help punch-up (pun intended) the combat, couldn’t be more obvious, and the movie is better for it. These are some of the most fun-to-watch fight scenes the superhero genre has showcased thus far, and with any luck, they’ll go on to inspire the next generation of R-rated cape-and-cowl madness.

The one notable sticking point Birds of Prey runs into is a poor sense of pacing. Harley’s non-linear storytelling is funny, sure, and while it does work in the context of her character, it can get hard to track what is happening when. The problem becomes more obvious as the multiple plot threads begin to weave into one. At worst, the cut-and-paste style feels like a fun but ultimately unnecessary time sink that stands in the way of the team coming together, which is a shame considering just how satisfying it is when all five of the movie’s main protagonists are on the screen with one another.

All told, however, the pacing problems are minor in the face of just how of a blast Birds of Prey is to watch. It’s the sort of kinetic, high energy romp that comes with built-in replay value, and proves exactly why Harley Quinn has become such an endearing, beloved character in the pop-culture pantheon. If this is the direction the DCEU is headed, the future’s looking bright.

Source: Game Spot Mashup