WARNING: Spoilers for Birds of Prey
Yes, I bothered writing the whole title out. Yes, you can shut up about it.
After pretty much stealing the show in 2016's Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) has been given a film in which she can shine on her own without her pudding', "Mr. J", around to ruin her fun. It's a risk. Harley is great, but up until recently, she never had a chance to shine on her own. Now there are plenty of Harley-centric comics and an absolutely hysterical animated series on HBO Max starring Kaley Cuoco (which I highly recommend, by the way). But how does Margot handle a film all on her own? Well, she doesn't have to because Harley is joined by her own posse of badass women including Renee Montoya, Cassandra Cain, Dinah "Black Canary" Lance, and Helena "Huntress" Bertinelli.
The basic story is pretty simple. But since Harley is telling it, it's anything but typical... or linear. Cassandra Cain steals a BIG ASS diamond from Roman "Black Mask" Sionis. And thus, pretty much anyone and everyone in the city is after her, including Harley Quinn. But when Harley finds the girl, she sees a kindred spirit in her and decides to fight back against Black Mask. Mix in Harley's chaotic interactions with Renee, Dinah, and Helena, and by the end you have a crazy posse to fight Roman's thugs.
Opening with an animation is a fun way to start the film and get a bunch of info out quick while not bogging down your story (*cough* take note Cruella *cough*). But it doesn't stop there. Animation is featured throughout the film and it all fits really well to help establish this kind of Looney Tunes headspace Harley constantly exists in. Some may see it as a bit too much, but it fits really well with this character.
Everyone gives pitch perfect performances, but the standouts here are Margot Robbie and Ewen McGreggor.
Margot is wonderful as Harley and is having an absolute blast in the role. Her second turn is far better than her first go around in Suicide Squad. Now she’s settled into Harley and can bring that manic ADHD energy while showing off Harley’s smarts at the same time. And that energy of here's is infectious.
But Ewen steals the show here. His Roman Sionis is VERY different than the comics, but so distinctive on its own that it doesn’t really matter. He puts his stamp on Black Mask's first big budget live-action adaptation, making the character pompous, narcissistic, and overly materialistic. This was the first DCEU film to be officially given an R rating right out of the gate, and it uses that rating to great effect. Sionis' introduction is one of the most brutal things the DCEU has done so far, and he does with with the most wicked wink and smile. And the scene where he makes a bar patron dance on a table in front of the whole club is genuinely unsettling. He goes from 1 to 100 so fast; it really shows you how sadistic Roman is deep inside. And I LOVE his relationship with Victor Zsasz. It just adds a little extra spice to the mix that is very welcome.
The rest of the cast also does a great jobl. Mary Elizabeth Winsted has perfect deadpan humor as Huntress, and Casandra Cain has an acidic wit. While Black Canary doesn’t get much time to show her abilities, she is still given some solid action and plot points. Each character has time to shine. I mentioned before, these are not the traditional interpretations of Roman, or Black Canary, or really any of these characters. So hardcore comic fans might get upset that they aren’t as accurate as they could be. But that being said, I think these interations work very well for the story being told. So comparisons aside, everyone does a great job making these versions of the characters unique on their own.
What helps is that from the minute you drop into this film, everyone is on their 'A' game.
Everything feels completely fleshed out and real. I totally buy Roman knowing Harley from past jobs with Joker. You can feel the respect they have for each other, until he discovers she’s no longer with the Clown Prince of Crime. This feels like I stepped into the middle of a fully realized universe, and that goes a very long way. This new Gotham (which we only got hints of in BvS) is great! It seems like a perfectly ordinary city like Metropolis during the day. But by night, Gotham is a brutal neon light show; like some mix between Adam West and Christian Bale with just a dash of Michael Keaton thrown in for good measure.
Gotham is the most colorful place to die, yet it’s disgusting and grimy at the same time. And the R rated violence and language help sell how off kilter and nasty this city is. The colorful goons feel much more at home here than they did in 2016's Suicide Squad. Remember the wacky, neon-noir color scheme Schumacher tried to do in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin? Birds of Prey does that right. I fully believe this kind of atmosphere bread criminals like The Penguin and Joker… and a Bat to counter them. I also fully believe that Harley could walk into an ordinary grocery store in Gotham without it feeling out of place.
Birds of Prey has one of the best scripts in the DCEU. It’s dialogue is very stylistic while remaining natural coming out of the characters' mouths. It’s like if Edgar Wright and Shane Black had a baby: very self aware, very bouncy, very rhythmic. It feels almost like an Ocean’s movie with Danny Ocean guiding you through the heist. Sadly, the plot and structure don't quite live up to the dialogue. This film has a lot of moving parts, and Harley's narration does help smooth that over. But there are times when it trips over itself and when the mechanics are a little needlessly complicated.
The title might be Birds of Prey, but this is a Harley Quinn movie, through and through.
The structure, narration, colors, chaotic editing, it all screams "Harley Quinn". It’s outrageous: at times it's hilarious, at times it’s a live action Looney Tunes cartoon, and it is anything but subtle. This is loud, brash, and in your face.
That's both good and bad.
It fits with Harley’s personality to a 'T'. But just like her, that means there are moments that feel a bit grating or annoying, or a little too, too much. At times the pacing is a bit start-stop due to Harley’s ADHD-like personality. She interrupts the film multiple times to backtrack and give context or backstory to a character or action (for example, when she goes back to explain Huntress’ story). These flashbacks tend to stop the momentum that was building. But it's not always the scenes themselves that make the moment feel long. It's the editing. Fading in and out of these beats make them feel slower than they really are. The "Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend" sequence is a great example. The movie feels like it stops completely to give you this music video inside Harley's head.
So even though the Birds of Prey are formed but the end of the film, a more accurate title might be Harley Quinn (and the Fantabulous Formation of the Birds of Prey).
But unfortunately, you can’t help but think of Deadpool while watching this film. The narration, the structure, the pop music, the R rated language and violence… it does feel like DC’s answer to Deadpool. But, this is still a very fun and enjoyable film on its own right. It wouldn’t be so noticeable if Deadpool hasn’t just came out a few years ago AND been an insane hit.
There are also a few too many "music video" moments. I'm pretty sure one action scene even switches songs THREE times. And some of the song choices doesn't quite fit with Harley's personality. They feel more like a general song the studio chose. That being said, the actual music score by Steven Price is fantastic.
Bottom Line: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a fun detour through a freaky circus with Harley and Roman leading the way. This is a colorful distraction and that’s all it tries to be. You know, like a "comic book" movie. So in that regard, it’s very good at what it sets out to do. The film thrives on the performances of its actors (especially its hero and villain), it’s strong sense of direction and style, and a fully fleshed out world for all of this to live inside. But it's not perfect, suffering from some pacing issues (this is the shortest DCEU movie, and that’s for the best, though it still honestly could have been 5 minutes shorter), and the fact that can’t help but feel like DC’s answer to Deadpool. This film is Harley Quinn’s personality personified. Which fits her character perfectly, but doesn’t make for the most streamline viewing experience. Your mileage on this film will all be determined by how much you like Harley Quinn as a personality and how much you enjoy seeing that personality translated into a film style.