DC’s Extended Universe of films got off to a rocky start. An early focus on being grim and gritty and “realistic” a la the comics of Frank Miller along with a lot of time spent setting up a universe seemed to get in the way of making, you know, good movies. That is to say, they went too dark and they spent so much time worrying about the next movie they forgot to focus on the one they were making.
Luckily it seems that someone eventually figured this out and started letting filmmakers make the movies they want to make rather than having them conform to a predetermined aesthetic and continuity. Sometimes this has resulted in a miss (like Joker) but in recent years they have actually generated a string of fun movies (like Aquaman and Shazam!).
So how does Birds of Prey fare? As both a sequel to one of the least liked DC films and also focussing on one of the most fun characters in the DC universe it has a tough setup but I’m pleased to say it’s definitely a hit.
The film starts with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn having just gotten out of her long term and abusive relationship with the Joker, an event she hides to maintain a cloak of untouchability right up until she figures out that she may never be respected as her own person unless she makes a big bold statement that they are no longer together. So she does that, and then the entire city comes after her.
What follows are her adventures in trying to stay alive, alongside the backstories of Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya, a cop who has never got her due, Journey Smollett-Ball’s Dinah Lance, a singer who’s more than she seems, Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain, a pickpocket in over her head, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress who has a mysterious backstory we don’t get to learn until he final act.
I could tell you more about how their stories intersect but suffice to say there is a MacGuffin and they all need it for various reasons, not the least of which is to keep it away from Evan McGregor’s Roman Sionis (Black Mask). If I tell you any more I’ll probably spoil something but despite such a thin setup the film manages to weave the stories together satisfactorily and bring all the characters together in the third act for a big ol’ showdown.
I know it seems silly to start with the men but let’s get them out of the way. Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina (playing the scarred hitman Victor Zsasz) are both having a ball in this movie. McGregor in particular. Slightly unhinged McGregor is my favourite McGregor and he is here in full force. It’s not explicit in the text but there are definitely undertones to their relationship that I think work pretty well.
All of our antiheroes are great too. Robbie obviously leads the movie with the same maniacal glee she’s brought to the character before. When I watched Suicide Squad I remember thinking that while I didn’t like that movie I did like Margot Robbie in it and wanted to see more of her Harley Quinn and this movie delivers that.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell is solid as Dinah Lance, bringing a hesitance to the character that makes her payoff deliver pretty well. Ella Jay Basco holds her own in every scene with Robbie and the rest of the cast and I cant wait to see more of her. Mary Elizabeth Winstead steals most of the scenes she’s in and gets some of the funniest moments as you begin to realize that Huntress has no idea how to relate to people.
It’s Rosie Perez who is the secret MVP of the cast though. Her Renee Montoya is embittered with the world after spending an entire career watching others take credit for her work and watching her find a new life through the course of the film is great.
So it’s full of fun performances but how is it as an action film? Well, the plot is confusing on purpose and features lots of rewinds and flashbacks. It works. It’s not wholly original but the MacGuffin intersects with all the characters stories just enough to work, and that’s just fine because watching these characters interact is fun, and then when it comes time to kick some butt the movie kicks into overdrive.
The fight choreography in this film is fantastic. None of the characters has super-powers and each of them has their own distinct style of fighting which is easy to distinguish. Cathy Yan, as it turns out, is a great action director who knows how to move a camera, when to go for the long take, and when to cut away. It is not hyperbole to say I had a big grin on my face during literally every fight scene in this movie. Think Deadpool or John Wick but with glitter and cocaine.
There’s one scene in particular where Harley has to fight her way through a warehouse full of thugs with a baseball bat and that scene is on par with basically any scene of Captain America fighting a group of bad guys with his shield. Each thug she fights gets a different use of the bat and it defies physics in the same super satisfying way that Cap’s shield does.
Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a movie about women escaping the men and the systems that oppress them, about finding friendships and connections in the darkest of times, and it’s a damned fine action movie to boot. You should definitely see it.