Film Review: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Since 2013’s Man of Steel, the DC Extended Universe has struggled to match the critical and commercial might of the superhero series juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fortunately, Warner Bros. and DC stopped trying to ape Marvel’s style and began producing standalone films like Aquaman, a flawed but immensely fun action adventure. That trend continued with Shazam, another enjoyable superhero outing with a good helping of heroic action and heaps of lighthearted humor. And now I can finally say that the DCEU has a film that’s as impressive as the majority of the MCU’s movies: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). It’s a colorful, comedic, and explosive action romp.

The film isn’t as much a Birds of Prey movie as it is a Harley Quinn movie, but that’s not much of a problem because Margot Robbie continues to shine as the antiheroine. It’s apparent that Robbie loves the character, as she brings the beloved clowness to life with such vibrant energy and tons of humor. Almost every joke lands exactly how it should – and there are A LOT of jokes – and every somber or dramatic moment is believable despite how over the top everything else is. Robbie was the best part of 2016’s Suicide Squad and she’s even better when solo or among the Birds of Prey.

Speaking of the other titular ass-kickers, they’re all awesome as well, even if they don’t get as much time in the spotlight as Harley. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is my favorite of the trio as Huntress, a mafioso murderer who manages to be appropriately dark and brooding based on her origin story, but occasionally turns up the edginess to intentionally comical levels. Somehow, she’d fit into the ultra-bleak earlier entries in the DCEU, but also lampoons them.

Rosie Perez is a whole lot of fun as Renee Montoya, a driven detective working among the mostly useless Gotham Police Department. She truly wants what’s best for Gotham, and is willing to bend the rules in order to make it happen. In a similar fashion to Huntress, Montoya both emobodies and spoofs the classic detectives of yesteryear’s cop flicks.

The weakest of the Birds (although she’s still great) is Dinah Lance/Black Canary, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell. She’s a lounge singer with a “killer voice” under the employ of the movie’s main antagonist, and is clearly unhappy working for someone capable of such violence and cruelty. Canary is the closest to being the “straight man” of the group, and watching her interact with Harley, Huntress, and Montoya is always fun.

Bringing the Birds and Harley all together is the wonderful Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain, a pickpocket who’s minor criminal activities end up putting her in hot water. Cassandra and Harley’s budding bond is both heartwarming and hilarious, even though it’s entirely predictable. I sincerely hope we get more of this duo down the road in later DCEU stories.

In opposition of Harley’s crew are two villains, and while both are satisfactory, one completely outshines the other. Chris Messina portrays the infamous Batman baddie Victor Zsasz, and while he does everything he can to be menacing and amusing – he succeeds most of the time – he’s completely outclassed by Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis, A.K.A “Black Mask.” The version of Sionis in Birds of Prey is quite different from his comic book counterpart, and honestly, way better in my opinion. Instead of a mostly generic, hot-headed gangster, McGregor gives us a flamboyant man-child with a fondness for killing and inflicting pain on those who he feels slighted by or just doesn’t like. The talented actor makes Sionis believable as a genuine, unsettling threat, and also a villain who’s so silly he could almost fit into a Saturday morning cartoon.

Along with the characters, the action in Birds of Prey is fantastic. No two set pieces feel remotely similar, and the choreography of the combatants is spectacular. The beatings are brutal too, the flick could’ve earned its R-rating just through its fights alone. Blood splatters, heads get smashed, limbs bend in ways they definitely shouldn’t, and it all flows so, so well. Each main character has a different technique too. Quinn’s takedowns include all kinds of acrobatics, Canary’s tactics look more improvisational than the rest, Huntress’ crossbow bolts are in play even in close quarters, etc. Those differences made the moments where they were all in close proximity even more outstanding. The soundtrack adds even more oomph, and fits the fights extremely well.

And HOLY CRAP, the big brawl in the film’s climax is phenomenal! It wouldn’t surprise me if that sequence ended up among my favorite scenes in anything this year.

With all said and done, I enjoyed the Hell out of Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). The DCEU is doing what works for them instead of imitating their competition (at last!) and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

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