When we first meet Harley Quinn in “Birds of Prey”, she’s just been dumped by the Joker. Doing what most people do after a bad breakup, Harley gets drunk, cuts her hair, eats junk food, creates havoc and eventually blows up ACE Chemicals, the place where she and Mister J became intertwined. All of this occurs within the first 7 minutes of “Birds of Prey” and I haven’t even mentioned the 2D animated opening sequence.
Although David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” was muddled with chaotic editing and a notoriously troubled production, the most common silver lining was Margot Robbie’s portrayal of the Clown Princess of crime. Despite the 3 and a half year wait, the “Suicide Squad” spinoff is finally here and thankfully, it lives up to the manic energy of its crazed heroine.
A young pickpocket by the name of Cassandra Cain (newcomer Ella Jay Basco) has accidentally stolen a precious diamond from one of Gotham City’s most feared crime lords, Roman Sionis AKA Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). Harley, along with detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Dinah Lance AKA Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Helena Bertinelli AKA Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) somehow find themselves entangled in an ever-moving plot to find the kid, take down Sionis and his legion of cronies and more importantly, figure out a way to not annoy each other to death.
Keeping in style with its lead character, director Cathy Yan (“Dead Pigs”) infuses this latest DC outing with bright, vivid colors — impeccably photographed by Matthew Libatique — and an infectious punk rock attitude that is truly unique and forges its own identity. Although there is glitter and neon in spades, “Birds of Prey” is very much Yan’s vibrant love letter to classic action cinema. Ranging from early Jackie Chan films like “Rumble in the Bronx” to even something like Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”, Yan uses the films R rating to her advantage with plenty of brutal, bone-crunching violence and more colorful language only seen from comic book fare such as “Deadpool”. Yan is able to piggyback off of the visual stylings of “Suicide Squad” and turn it into something far more natural.
The action sequences (2nd unit directed by “John Wick” creator Chad Stahelski) are badass and hard-hitting. Emphasizing long takes with beautiful wide shots so the action is always visually cohesive, the set pieces Yan and co. are able to craft are often jaw-dropping. One sequence involving water, a jail cell and Harley with a baseball ball is one for the ages. This is just another example of why stunt teams should be recognized by the Academy.
Producer and star Margot Robbie takes her portrayal of Harley Quinn to new heights. Giving her best comedic work to date, Robbie once again disappears into Harley and she commands every frame she’s in. Harley never stops being a fun character to watch and Robbie gives a tour de force performance.
The other “Birds of Prey” members are mostly given their fair share of fun as well. Jurnee Smollett-Bell gives strong work as Black Canary, a character that is sure to be become an audience favorite. Rosie Perez and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are both respectively compelling, if not a tad underutilized here. Ella Jay Basco has quite the amount of promise as Cassy Cain; at one point in the comics she becomes Batgirl.
As Gotham’s most narcissistic villain, Roman Sionis, Ewan McGregor quite simply astonishes. McGregor’s performance is suitably hammy, but never overtly so. His fresh portrayal of the classic villain is subversive and unpredictable, making him one of the most memorable onscreen comic book villains of the past few years. He’s both flamboyant and deeply menacing in equal measure, making his antics even more compelling to watch. His dynamic with his main henchman, Victor Zsasz (a superbly chilling Chris Messina) is one we haven’t quite seen in a comic book film before. Their relationship — possibly romantic — is entertaining and features some highly ambiguous undertones that add an interesting element to the film.
Tightly scripted by Christina Hodson (“Bumblebee”), the narrative bounces back and forth in time from different perspectives similar to Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” but far more deranged. With Harley literally narrating the film, the tone is outlandish, but consistently funny. Having both a female writer and director truly gives “Birds of Prey” a refreshing new viewpoint that is sorely missing from most mainstream blockbusters. This film is all about empowerment, but it’s never pandering in its approach.
“Birds of Prey” is cartoonish in the best possible way. It manages to capture the essence of Harley Quinn both performance-wise and stylistically, while paying homage to the action classics that come before it. Some characters aren’t used to their full potential — something set up for the inevitable sequel — and it’s more Harley Quinn film than straight up “Birds of Prey” adaptation, but that doesn’t stop this from being potentially the best DC film of the past 10 years and one of the brightest lights of the comic book genre of recent years.