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Review: ‘Birds of Prey’ lets Harley Quinn spread her wings and fly

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Thanks to its eclectic style and nonstop energy, “Birds of Prey” clearly distinguishes itself from the rest of the properties in the DC Extended Universe. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Four years ago, trailers for “Suicide Squad” promised the world a raunchy, hardcore and eclectic supervillain team up movie. There was only one problem: the end result was something else entirely. Simply put, it was one of the year’s worst films.

However, the 2016 disaster’s one saving grace came donning red and blue pig tails – Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was absolutely magnetic. So, when the higher ups at DC made the executive decision to trash the group’s current iteration and pull a soft reboot, it only made sense to keep Robbie’s villainess around as the franchise’s one holdover.

Now, Harley Quinn has returned, and this time there’s no tacky Joker or sloppy writing to hold her back. In “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” DC has righted its wrongs and paved the way for an utterly fantabulous future.

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Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in “Birds of Prey.” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

After a messy breakup with the Joker, Harley Quinn (Robbie) is back on the market – but that means she’s now fair game for all of Gotham’s other crime lords, too. Without Mr. J casting a shadow of protection, Harley has become an easy target for everyone looking for payback.

When maniacal mobster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) finally gets his hands on Harley, he plans to exact his revenge slowly and painfully. That is, until Harley convinces him of her value. Sionis is after a long-lost diamond that’s the key to unlocking a lost Gotham fortune, and lucky for Harley, she knows exactly where to find it. The gemstone lies in the hands of teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). But Harley and Roman aren’t the only ones looking for the young thief – Gotham PD’s Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), anti-heroine Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a mysterious outsider known as Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are all after Cassandra for their own reasons.

But when Roman and his cronies start closing in, the women realize they have no choice but to team up in order to make it out alive. Told by Harley Quinn herself, “Birds of Prey” is as eclectic and scatterbrained as its narrator – and it’s absolutely incredible.

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(L-R) Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary in “Birds of Prey.” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

The title may be all about emancipating Harley Quinn, but she’s not the only one being liberated here. In a way, it feels like the entire movie is being freed from the all too familiar doom and gloom of the DC Extended Universe. Think of every misstep “Suicide Squad” made. From the incomprehensible action sequences to the total lack of character development, and most of all, its inconsistent tone and style, everything about the movie was a mess.

It’s clear from the very start that’s not the case in “Birds of Prey.” Bursting colors, freeze frame character introductions and fourth wall breaks quickly establish the film’s tone, and it stays true to the stylized insanity all the way throughout. 

When it comes to aligning “Birds of Prey” with a counterpart within the DCEU, there isn’t a clear comparison. However, there is one on the Marvel side of things. Think “Deadpool,” but zanier and with more to say. All the major similarities are there: the narration, the sly winks into the camera and the excessive slow-mo violence and gore. While the expertly choreographed fighting here may be far more artistic, that doesn’t make it any less bone-crunching. But where “Deadpool” only has the Merc with a Mouth, there are a number of rich characters alongside Harley Quinn in “Birds of Prey.”

Make no mistake: this is Robbie’s film through and through, but director Cathy Yan didn’t hold back on diving deep into the development of Harley’s counterparts. So often when superheroes, or villains, team up for the first time, there is a lack of understanding of who each character is on a singular level. We’ve seen it cripple DC’s “Justice League” and “Suicide Squad” – films so intent on focusing on the group that they forget about the individuals. While no one in “Birds of Prey” has had a standalone film to lay the foundation for their character, Yan and screenwriter Chistina Hodson are sure to take their time exploring each new player’s history. This patience pays off by the film’s third act when its heroines find themselves in mortal peril and the audience find themselves truly caring for them.

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Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask, in “Birds of Prey.” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

That credit can’t be given entirely to the film’s writing and directing though. The actors are the ones who bring these characters to life, and there’s no shortage of life here. Second to Robbie, Smollett-Bell turns in an intriguing performance as Black Canary, as she delicately balances the ruthless need for self-preservation with her instinctive desire to protect the young Cassandra Cain. Aside from the Birds of Prey, McGregor is incredibly entertaining. Part murderous psychopath, part flamboyant playboy, McGregor never feels as if he’s flipping a switch between his two personas, but instead, he perfectly blends them into one terrifying character.

The only nits to pick with “Birds of Prey” are minute, and may come at the cost of contradicting myself. As important as the time spent developing each individual heroine may be, it verges on being too much isolation. After all, the movie is called “Birds of Prey.” By the time the women all finally team up in the third act, audiences are certain to be fully invested in their story, but by then it feels as if there’s not enough time spent kicking ass together. But hey, that’s what sequels are for, right?

The plot itself in “Birds of Prey” may not be anything revolutionary within the comic book genre, but the way it goes about presenting it is what makes the film truly distinguish itself. As studios continue to churn out superhero films left and right, it’s all too easy to fall victim to the same cookie-cutter tropes as all the rest, but thanks to the innovative and, dare I say, fantabulous style of Harley Quinn’s latest adventure, “Birds of Prey” avoids those pitfalls. 

Now, let’s just hope future DC films were taking notes.

Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Zach Goins View All

Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.

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