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

The narrative that DC is flailing and Marvel has got it figured out is so solidly ingrained now that I don’t see it changing. It doesn’t matter that Marvel’s movies look and feel more homogeneous as they go. Or maybe that is part of their popularity. It doesn’t matter that DC is doing stuff that is weird and good. Once Batman v. Superman came out and people didn’t like it, the narratives were set. DC will always be chasing Marvel, no matter how different the approaches and final products. Warner Brothers has put out some really good DC movies over the last year, mostly using an approach of simply making the best film for each character. Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam were all excellent and, no matter my complete disdain for it, Joker really resonated with people. Birds of Prey continues this, while salvaging the best part of Suicide Squad.

Birds of Prey follows Harley Quinn as she breaks up with the Joker. As abusive and toxic as that relationship was, she learns that her proximity to the most feared criminal in Gotham had granted her a measure of protection that she took for granted. Especially with night club owner and criminal Roman Sionis. Once she is no longer untouchable, he comes after her to get revenge for several petty slights. Luckily for Harley, he is in need of help. Help finding an important jewel, which was stolen from his henchman Zsasz but a young pickpocket named Cassandra Cain. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other people out to get her before Harley does. One is Gotham cop Renee Montoya, who has been trying to take down Sionis for years. Another is the mysterious Huntress, who showed up out of nowhere and started shooting people with a crossbow. And finally there is Dinah Lance, a night club singer who is finally fed up with Sionis.

The story is told from the perspective of the somewhat addled Harley Quinn, so it moves in fits and starts at times. She is telling the story as it goes, and sometimes goes back to tell it in a different way. The disjointed nature of the opening hour works in the film’s favor as it slowly introduces characters and shows scenes from different points of view. In all, the structure calls to mind early Guy Ritchie movies like Snatch, where various groups of criminals bounce off each other in unpredictable ways.

The movie shines in one area especially: the fights scenes. Supposedly John Wick director Chad Stahleski helped with the fight scenes and it shows. They don’t match that series for inventiveness or impact, but the fight scenes here are a cut above most action movies, let alone most superhero movies. Birds of Prey’s action has weight. The scenes are frequently over the top, even silly, but that fits in perfectly with the movie they are making. They are a deadly, ridiculous ballet. The fight in the police station is great and the big one at the end is just masterful.

It also shines with characters. Margot Robbie continues to be excellent as Harley Quinn. The character is seen somewhat as DC’s version of Deadpool, and there is some truth to that. Like Reynolds with that character, Robbie perfectly embodies Harley Quinn. Also, it is a taste that is not for everyone. The Birds of Prey stray a little further from their comic counterparts, but they all get the cores of their characters right. Montoya is a good cop pushed just a bit too far by the corruption of Gotham. She wants to do the right thing, but is so disillusioned with the system that it is starting to break her. As we are introduced to her here, played by the excellent Rosie Perez, she is starting to crack, but her heart’s in the right place. Huntress, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is pretty much straight from the comics. A mafia princess coming back to get revenge on the people who killed her parents. She is a somewhat twisted version of Batman that, in the comics, eventually broke good. The new addition is her social awkwardness, an understandable development for a person who spent most of her life training to get revenge. Then there is Dinah Lance, Black Canary, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who we do not get enough of but has the best arc outside of Harley. She starts as someone who ignores the damage happening to people around her, until it is so in her face that she can’t ignore it. As the movie goes along, she becomes more committed to fighting against it.

The only fly in the ointment is Cassandra, who bears absolutely no resemblance to the comic character. She is almost as much of a mcguffin as the diamond she stole, but mostly works as a sort of kid sidekick to the whole cast, though she ends up in Harley’s orbit for most of the movie.

I’ll admit to being enough of a comic nerd that seeing characters I like on the big screen is still something of a thrill for me, especially when they are character who have not been there before. DC’s B and C list characters are some of my favorites, so seeing Huntress and Black Canary was fun in and of itself. However, Birds of Prey is firing on all cylinders. It has great action, a good sense of humor, and some really great character work. I loved it.

****1/2

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