It’s that time again! Time to play “DC Comics Movie Adaptation Roulette!” As with every recent adaptation as of late from the Warner Bros franchise, things can go any which way! Will it be an ensemble action picture? Maybe a semi-spin off that takes something from the failed DC Extended Universe & reinvents it for the better? Or perhaps a grimey character study that examines the emotions of a silly clown villain? Weirdly, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) doesn’t play by the rules of roulette and instead chooses to do all three at once like the true rebel it is. The crown jewel of this mismash is Harley Quinn, a role Margot Robbie reprises after first appearing in the previous DCEU film Suicide Squad. In the middle of that disaster, Robbie’s manic energy and off kilter charm did much of the heavy lifting.
So naturally, Warner Bros saw fit to give her a spin off which eventually mutated into Birds of Prey. Here, Harley tries to make a new life for herself after being kicked out of the home of her boyfriend Joker. While trying the keep herself afloat word gets out about her break up from the Clown Prince of Crime, thus drawing a whole mess of Gotham’s criminal underbelly after Harley now that Joker isn’t protecting her. One such criminal is Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), a major mob boss of the city’s East side who nearly kills Harley before she volunteers to go on a mission for him that involves pulling a rare diamond off quick witted young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). This causes a lot of folks to come into Harley’s cross hairs, including undervalued cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), elusive singer/ball buster Dinah Lace (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) & a mysterious cold blooded killer with a crossbow Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
From that synopsis, one may be inclined to ask a few questions. Is Jared Leto’s Joker around at all in his tattooed glory? Why isn’t Ben Affleck’s Batman patrolling the city? Where are Harley Quinn’s booty shorts? Well, the simple answer that Birds of Prey writer Christina Hodson offers in a giant pelvic thrust of a toss away to much of any connection to the previous DC Extended Universe films. And thank God she does. Aside from extremely fleeting lines or flashback inserts, none of that stupidity matters. We’re here to see a Looney Toon of a woman pick herself up and start blowing up things all over again. This story isn’t just a fresh start for Robbie’s Harley. It’s a brand restructuring of the shambles that DC had been left in. Right from her early decision to blow up Ace Chemicals in a glittery blaze of glory, Quinn takes the universe left behind and makes a home out of the rubble.
This reenergizing has a slapdash energy that reverberates throughout Birds of Prey feels fitting for Harley Quinn. Harley made her first appearance in Batman The Animated Series nearly 30 years ago, a creation of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm that came completely by accident. Initially created as a mere henchwoman for the Joker with a unique outfit, Quinn evolved into a dimensional tragic figure. An incredibly bright psychiatrist trapped under the influence of a toxic criminal boyfriend. Yet, aside from a few fun diversion episodes that examined her potential, Harley was always kept under the status quo beneath Joker’s thumb at the end of the day. Not able to develop from a seeming fear of having two clown themed villains in the Batman rogues gallery. Luckily, Margot Robbie is allowed to severe those forehead tattooed ties right from the start and makes this scrappy situation for Harley as a stream of consciousness madcap adventure that’s so incredibly refreshing.
An early chase sequence in Birds of Prey involves Quinn running for dear life from several different parties out to seek vengeance while she’s preoccupied with preserving an egg sandwich she’s craving. It’s perfect table setting for where our dysfunctional anti-hero is in here life. Harley is a total mess of a person without much long term planning who still keeps her head cool and confident even in the face of dire threats. Thinking on her feet with only one shoe on either foot. Robbie marries the desperation of a young lady fighting to stay alive in the big city with the stretchy resilience of a Warner Bros cartoon seamlessly. Allowing Harley to live in the moment even if it means a few others will get maimed during said moment. This gives Harley far more humanity than her initial origin, while keeping the core of the character’s personality alive and losing much the overly sexualized object schtick from her last live action appearance. One fight sequence involving a broken sprinkler during a prison break could easily have been fetishistic in its approach, but instead comes off as a serendipitous helpful hand in her escape. All of this allows us to respect Harley’s drive and enjoy her rubber band style spring in her step even while she commits heinous crimes left and right.
While Hodson’s script bursts with character fueled energy for Harley, the ground does initially come off shaky. Like a deer rising to its feet after being hit by a car, Birds of Prey starts on wobbly feet to sweep the DC Extended Universe elements under the rug. There’s an animated segment prologue, some hasty narration and several sloppy expositional elements to get us in step with the film’s wave length. Even a narrative device to juggle the various characters via inconsistent linear/non-linear presentation is attempted, mainly framed as Harley’s inability to properly tell the story in a cohesive fashion. While all of this feels kind of wonky, director Cathy Yan puts genuine effort into the proceedings is lively and boisterous enough to stitch together the fabric of the structure. Yan embraces the patchwork design and translates it into a stream of consciousness kinetic drive that feels like a John Wick action beat covered in animation logic sprinkles. She keeps as much of the grey tone of the previous DC Comics films as she contractually has to and counteracts it with a neon display of urban grime and loud color as she can. Resulting in a trashy yet exuberant look at Gotham’s lower tier underground.
The lack of too many superpowered beings fleshes out the titular fowl of Birds of Prey and the villains around Harley wonderfully. Ewan McGregor’s mob boss anger is genuinely intimidating, but with a consistent giddy excitement that makes him as gleeful as he is unpredictable. Chris Messina evokes a creepy intensity that keeps a steady hand to McGregor’s malice as his henchman Victor Zsasz. Ella Jay Basco’s chill dry wit contrasts with Harley’s boisterousness in a consistently endearing back & forth. Rosie Perez’s usual spry tough demeanor is still intact all these years later while having the mileage to show even less suffrage of fools. Jurnee Smollett-Bell piercing eyes and calculated punches makes her the most efficient moral compass of the group. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s tough exterior hides comedic bursts of insecurity that steals many a scene. Those latter three in particular have such an engaging chemistry that it’s a bit disappointing that they don’t come together as a mismatched ensemble with Harley until the third act. Still, Quinn’s chemistry with any of them individually is consistently thrilling.
While not a loud as Aquaman or as heartwarming as Shazam, Birds of Prey keeps their desire to forge a new path for their individual characters even with DCEU window dressing. Harley and her compatriots strike the right middle ground between confident and unprepared in a far cry from the godly Justice League of the comics and with far more personality than the Justice League of the titular film. There’s some struggle to get things started storywise yet the energy kicks off from the start and never manages to falter once thanks to a game cast and kinetic direction. Hopefully we continue to emphasize on this type of storytelling with characters from these comics. While Marvel keeps a pretty strict continuity, DC can improvise its connectivity while respecting a story that’s appropriate for the characters. The contrast between the irreverent R rated tone of this and the self serious malaze of last year’s Joker only shows just how diverse these folks can really be if given the appropriate chance. Still, I’d like to see these ladies have gory fun over a toothpick in clown makeup dance any day.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Dynamite Sticks Thrown Out Car Windows