Harley Quinn steps out of the Joker’s shadow and into the glorious spotlight. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) will delight fans of the mischievous troublemaker. The film succeeds on the strength of Margot Robbie’s giddy performance, despite a paper thin plot and cartoonish execution. There’s not much air in the tank for the supporting characters. But Ewan McGregor makes the most of his screen time. He nearly steals the show as the maniacal, yet hilariously narcissistic Black Mask. Birds of Prey is pixy stix and cotton candy cinema, a sugar rush entry in the DC Extended Universe.
Loosely following the events of Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey has Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) breaking up with the Joker. She announces her single status to Gotham City with a truly explosive flourish. Harley soon learns that leaving the Clown Prince of Crime has serious repercussions. Gotham’s underworld and law enforcement let her create chaos because they feared the Joker’s wrath. It’s open season on Harley Quinn without his protection.
Crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), aka Black Mask, wants to be the biggest baddie in Gotham. He has eyes on a specific prize that would pave his path to rule. But a young pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) and mysterious, crossbow hunting assassin (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are thwarting his plans. In addition to the covert actions of a lounge singer (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and persistent cop (Rosie Perez). The Black Mask has a bevy of girl power aligning against him. Harley Quinn must decide whether to lead the charge, or play second fiddle to a powerful man once again.
Director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) and screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) understand the appeal of their source material. Harley Quinn is not a dour, bleak DC character drenched in anger and introspection. Birds of Prey is the vehicle for Harley Quinn’s brand of comic heroine. She’s a criminal, but not evil. Sexy, but ferociously feminist. Twisted, but not a psychopath. Knockdown funny, but no laughing stock. One of the better scenes has Harley analyzing the roots of the word harlequin. It’s time to make her own way and rules. Birds of Prey is her coming out party. While the film could certainly have been better in other regards, it achieves establishing Harley Quinn as a viable lead.
Huntress, Black Canary, and Renee Montaya get their origin stories told, but not much else. The Birds of Prey are introduced wikipedia style, then relegated to sidekicks quickly. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a tremendous actress, is barely seen as Huntress. That was a major letdown for me, but it’s clear the filmmakers wanted Harley Quinn to be the plot’s unequivocal focus. Which makes Ewan McGregor’s take on Black Mask so interesting. You’ll laugh at his easily bruised ego, then be appalled by his savagery. He’s a better than expected villain.
Birds of Prey is essentially ten pages of script then a bang. The plot is simple and formulaic with near constant narration. The story needs more depth and character exposition; without sacrificing the lighthearted tone. It can be done, as proven by other comic adaptations such as Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok. I look forward to seeing Margot Robbie reprise Harley Quinn in director James Gunn’s sequel of sorts, The Suicide Squad.
Birds of Prey earns its R-rating with adult themes. There’s graphic violence, f-bombs a plenty, and recreational drug use. It’s definitely not a popcorn flick for younger children. Stick around for a clever post credits scene. Birds of Prey is produced by Clubhouse Pictures and DC Entertainment with distribution by Warner Bros.
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