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Birds of Prey Review

February 6, 2020 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Birds of Prey
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Birds of Prey Review  

Directed By: Cathy Yan
Written By: Christina Hodson
Runtime: 109 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material

Margot Robbie – Harley Quinn
Mary Elizabeth Winstead – Helen Bertinelli/Huntress
Jurnee Smollett-Bell – Dinah Lance/Black Canary
Rosie Perez – Renee Montoya
Ewan McGregor – Roman Sionis/Black Mask
Chris Messina – Victor Zsasz
Ella Jay Basco – Cassandra Cain
Ali Wong – Ellen Yee
François Chau – Mr. Keo

Margot Robbie is back as Harley Quinn and takes center stage in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, which will be referred to henceforth as Birds of Prey. Robbie was one of the standout players from the uneven DC Comics hit Suicide Squad. Birds of Prey has a story that’s smaller in scope, but a tighter perspective. Birds of Prey is certainly entertaining, but it finds rough footing in its attempts to service the other Birds of Prey heroes.

Some time after the events of 2016’s Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn is out on her own. She and The Joker have broken up; or rather, Joker dumped her. After being long defined as “Joker’s girlfriend,” Quinn is now on a journey of self-discovery and independence. The convenient aspect of Harley Quinn’s involvement with The Joker granted her a level of protection from reprisals by the criminal scum of Gotham City. However, now that Quinn declares she and Joker are through after wrecking the Ace Chemicals factory where they declared their undying love for each other, Quinn basically painted a target on her back; and the nefarious crime lord Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (McGregor), is one such scumbag who is ready to collect on Quinn’s considerable debts.

The plot presents a precious diamond that Roman Sionis wants. The diamond is purloined by delinquent teenager Cassie Cain (Basco). Harley Quinn is willing to obtain this precious gem for Sionis in exchange for her life. Quinn’s story ultimately sets her on a madcap adventure ride along with Detective Renee Montoya (Perez), who wants to bring Black Mask to justice. There’s also Dinah Lance (Smollett-Bell), Sionis’ lounge singer and would-be driver who becomes an informant for Montoya, and finally, a mobster-killing vigilante out for revenge who goes by the handle of Huntress (Winstead) and is systematically taking out members of Black Mask’s crew. The diamond Cain took is the designated MacGuffin of this story. Black Mask wants it because it provides that key for him to control Gotham. It inadvertently brings these several parties together in a collision course of violence, gags and utter mayhem.

Birds of Prey is a tale of two films. Essentially, it’s a showcase for Margot Robbie to shine in the role of Harley Quinn in a way she never really did in Suicide Squad, and also a backdoor pilot of sorts for a Birds of Prey film franchise. It’s that dichotomy where the movie is spread too thin across its fairly lean 109-minute runtime. As a Harley Quinn movie is where Birds of Prey is strongest, but it lacks luster as a Birds of Prey story and setup.

As a movie, Birds of Prey is told and showcased through Harley Quinn’s warped, demented and depraved perspective. It imbues the film with chaotic, wacky energy. There’s a definite over-the-top, outrageous wackiness at work here, which this film definitely plays into since it’s nearly all from Harley’s point of view. Thanks to an R-rating, Birds of Prey doesn’t skimp on the f-bombs, violence and gore. The violence and gore are copious in this film, but it’s all executed with a slapstick, Looney Tunes style. This makes sense because it’s presenting the story essentially from Harley’s own mind’s eye and how she views the world.

The story loses momentum when the action shifts to the various other subplots involving Renee Montoya’s police investigation into Black Mask and establishing Dinah Lance. Lance is an exceptional singer at Black Mask’s club, but a chance encounter with Harley Quinn unwittingly makes her Sionis’ new driver. Lance isn’t a bad person. She’s just trying to survive, and she doesn’t have the best view of Gotham’s finest after her vigilante mother was left dead in the streets. Regardless, after Lance learns that her neighbor Cassie Cain got ahold of Black Mask’s diamond, she doesn’t want Cassie falling into the hands of Sionis, or his sadistic attack dog Victor Zsasz (Messina). There’s also the mysterious Huntress, who has returned to Gotham City to get revenge, who also has a familial connection to Sionis’ diamond. Unfortunately, Huntress’ backstory is the most undercooked and is little more than an afterthought for the Harley Quinn show.

Had Birds of Prey essentially stayed as a Harley Quinn solo-movie where she’s set against Black Mask, it likely would have been a lot less uneven. In many ways, the film is like DC’s answer to the Deadpool movies. Even the relationship and bonding between Harley Quinn and Cassie Cain, who becomes an aspiring apprentice to Harley, is analogous to Deadpool and Julian Dennison as Russell Collins in the second movie.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead certainly looks cool as Huntress/Helen Bertinelli, but she’s basically wasted as a character here. Her backstory is basically a gag and footnote done more in service of Harley Quinn’s journey. Smollett-Bell gets a bit more to do as a more secondary protagonist to Harley Quinn. Thankfully, the film doesn’t eschew her abilities, but they are also marginalized. Unfortunately, this being a Birds of Prey story, Barbara Gordon/Oracle is nowhere in sight, and it’s not much of a Birds of Prey story without her.

Sadly, there are very little vestiges for Cassandra Cain from her DC Comics’ counterpart in this film. She’s been de-aged and rewritten as the obligatory kid sidekick opposite Harley. Basco’s performance is rather underwhelming. There are no surprises with this character. It hits every predictable beat that shoving the juvenile teen who bonds with the “hero” often does in this type of story. Any number of other characters could have served as an apprentice or adolescent to bond with Harley.

Speaking as someone who was not all that enthusiastic about Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, she delivers a far superior performance here. Much like Harley Quinn does in her own personal journey, Robbie has also found her own voice as the character, and quite literally, her accent is more consistent this time. As the twisted heart and soul of this story, Robbie truly comes into her own as Harley Quinn this time around.

The character of Harley Quinn definitely appears to be the muse of director Cathy Yan because it’s Harley story where this films excels the most. The outrageous, goofy violence makes sense as a way to externalize Harley’s worldview.

Credit is also due to Cathy Yan for showing a lot more of the creepy, weird side of Gotham City that was never really depicted in Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad. Since the entire story is set in Gotham City, Yan plays around a lot more with that sandbox and stages some fun sequences around famed locations such as Amusement Mile and the Gotham Docks.

Ewan McGregor is clearly having fun playing the unhinged mobster Roman Sionis. This version is more of a petulant, spoiled man-child who is desperately seeking legitimacy as the top crime boss of Gotham City. It’s similar to Harley Quinn’s own quest for identity and self-discovery apart from The Joker. Sionis wants to step out of the shadow of his father and other Gotham crime lords and prove he’s the boss. He’s a good foil for Harley Quinn, who gets to play the antihero this time around.

Overall, the movie runs as a fast clip, but the pacing is sometimes rushed and a bit manic. Sometimes this works, since Harley Quinn is the narrator, and when she goes on tangents and sidetracks it is worked into the narrative. In other areas, like with Huntress and Black Canary, there are backstories that are underdeveloped. There are some action scenes that are a little disjointed.

For example, assassins and mercenaries throughout the story frequently attack Harley. After one lobs a colorful explosive payload, he is no longer seen again and is merely forgotten about. While watching Harley Quinn stage a crazy, one-woman siege on a police station is definitely entertaining, it could have used a bit more explanation for the absolute ineptness of police officers, who suddenly seem to have no weapons at all to defend themselves against a someone armed with a grenade launcher that shoots bean bags and confetti bombs.

Birds of Prey is a fun, watchable and entertaining madcap adventure that works very well as The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, but less so as a Birds of Prey origin story. Basically, this plays like two movies smooshed together, which probably would have worked even better as two separate films. Regardless, Margot Robbie puts in a much more convincing effort as to why she was cast in the role of Harleen Quinzell, aka Harley Quinn.

The final score: review Good
The 411
Birds of Prey is a fun, outrageous, gory, somewhat goofy, madcap cruise ride through Gotham City, with Harley Quinn as the quirky captain and navigator. It's a good Harley Quinn striking out on her own story, but the Birds of Prey elements don't quite work as well and are rather underdeveloped. The R-rating and humorous bloody gore and violence give it a humorous edge that comic book movies often lack. The violence is cartoony, not grim 'n' gritty, which is the way it should be for a Harley Quinn story.