It’s no longer a secret how flawed still DC’s track record in film has been, particularly in the last seven years. Their Extended Universe is forever riddled with hits and misses; sadly, Joker cannot stand among the hits and bump the average up, as it was always its own unique entity. And yet, the level of quality we’ve noticed in 2019 in Gotham and neighboring communities has successfully pulled its weight and mellowed out the flavor quite abundantly. Shazam helped a great deal, but now it’s time for the R-rated side to rise again. And boy, does it make a dramatic comeback. Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is, easily enough, the jaw-dropper that proves audiences are still being sent in the right direction. And Margot Robbie is in the driver’s seat, bringing her career-defining role into the inevitable solo film she’s earned and that we reluctantly deserve.
Six months after Suicide Squad saw her emotional split from a professional relationship with Jared Leto’s version of the clown prince, Harleen Quinzel (Robbie), a jill-of-all-trades; psychologist chief among those most surprising; suddenly finds herself lost, alone, a free agent. The latter doesn’t sound so bad until a public display of changing her status attracts the immediate attention of many a lowlife in the city, and at least one jaded policewoman looking to be proven right for once. And this is where the story becomes equal parts exciting and confusing.
Aside from Quinn trying to enjoy her newfound independence, there’s the roguish, pig-headed nightclub owner Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), and his live-in partner Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), with whom their crime syndicate is assured with a rare diamond retrieved from a wealthy mob family. Embroiled in their web from different angles, amateur pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), songbird Dinah (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a mysterious markswoman who goes by The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And Gotham PD veteran Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who’s as corny as the 80s one-liners she exudes, risking her career to try to sew everything up via mild improv. While Quinn has the clearer plan in taking the kid, and the diamond, which she swallowed in the ultimate McGuffin, directly to the loopy Sionis.
Not quite without its imperfect blemishes, Birds of Prey manages to make every minute, even every shot count. First-time feature director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) have crafted an electrically charged, unapologetically witty piece of action pulp filmmaking, fully deserving of its R rating. How it managed to leave a smile on my face at its end, that’s still lost on me. I resisted at times, but once the core pieces start to blend, as and when most of these comic book films tend to do, it’s like a well-oiled machine, every cog cooperating with the other. A rather stunning departure from where the film begins, taking the non-linear route, causing the mind to jump a few hoops in order to catch up and connect all the dots as they emerge into play.
Imagine a myriad of train cars being split off onto different tracks, and the viewer forced to use tall step ladders to cross back and forth between each one before they finally line up again. While still fun to watch, to see these characters develop, none of them a throwaway, the confusion could keep some left off guard. In Yan’s hands, it’s all a bit stilted and jittery at first. Really nothing we haven’t seen before, by now fashioned into tired cliché plenty of directors can’t quite escape.
The inclusion of both Black Betty and Barracuda in the same 10-minute span was enough of an unwarranted head-shaker for me. What allows her to break away from that trap is that brash cockiness her actors offer endlessly. Coupled perhaps, with the most impressive fight choreography to come out of any of these DC films. Like, jaw-droppingly. Consider Jon Valera as the year’s first winning candidate in that field.
Birds is certainly an actress’s film, first and foremost. And this is once more Robbie’s chance to linger in the spotlight, looking past a troubled prior team-up film most of us would rather soon forget. Here, she sparkles, snaps, crackles, and pops. Kicking butt with a bubblegum-chewing grin, cosplay-friendly fashion sense, and the cutest of Madonna-like New York accents. And even the voice of an angel, as one concussion-induced dream sequence will prove. Up there with her Oscar-nominated turn in I, Tonya, and her breakout part in The Wolf of Wall Street, Robbie steals the show once more, amping up the energy, and lighting a fuse of crassness so effusive, no other actress could manage to top.
Next best solution is to compliment, which is exactly what the remaining ensemble accomplish with full camaraderie. Between Perez, Winstead, Basco, and Smollett-Bell, the girl power is nothing short of genuine, honest, difficult, forward-thinking, brimming with hilarity. And determined to challenge a rather tired, aged representation of male dominance. Something McGregor nails down to a capitol T. Sleazy, cold, smooth-talking and not far from a relevant workplace enemy, his is a natural-born caricature taken straight out of the books and portrayed with accuracy and aplomb. Factor in Messina and they’re the first unexpectedly eccentric queer duo that movie audiences will appreciate. I cannot be the only one who could read that energy immediately.
Birds of Prey is nowhere near a perfect comic book movie, nor can it be considered the next step of any certain subversive subgenre experiment. In other words, Neither the next Deadpool nor John Wick, by any stretch of the imagination. Yan walks on shaky ground to give this accidental heroine the standalone story she’s worked so hard for, the on-screen chemistry slow to build upon itself. Once it stabilizes, the very moment it becomes as physical as it does verbal (the curse words remain somewhat restrained for an R-rated feature), that’s when the thrill ride reaches its top speed, not letting the throttle go until the very end, and deliberately leaving us wanting more. Not unlike a classic Looney Tune, and all in the name of do-gooder empowerment that can entertain as much as enlighten. If that doesn’t permanently alter the landscape for these types of films going forward, nothing will. (B-; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) opens in area theaters this weekend; rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material; 109 minutes.
Most recent trailer below, in case you need further convincing…