The DCEU embraces its inner Bugs Bunny, and is all the better for it.
If you’d have told me two years ago that not only would I be looking forward to a sequel (such as it is) to 2015’s murky, execrable Suicide Squad, but I’d end up really enjoying it, I’d have banished you to the darkest cell in Arkham Asylum. To be fair, David Ayer’s overstuffed, underlit supervillain team-up came right at the wrong time: the product of post-Avengers superhero mania, but amidst the polarizing reactions to DCEU’s so-called ‘dark, gritty’ approach to superheroes, it was the victim of a compromised vision of what was undoubtedly a bad idea in the first place — reshoots, changes in tone, a final cut engineered by the house that did the trailers, etc.
The one bright spot though? Margot Robbie‘s semi-Gothic-Lolita reinterpretation of the Joker’s moll Harleen Quinzel (aka Harley Quinn), a brash, madcap figure imbued with scene-stealing energy by one of the greatest actors of her generation. Now, with Birds of Prey, Robbie’s Quinn is given a vehicle worthy of her talents, a manically gleeful girl-power anthem that’s just as energetic and irreverent as she is.
As Birds of Prey (sorry, Birds of Prey: or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) begins, the Joker’s broken up with Harley. Good, great, we hated Leto’s version of the Clown Prince of Crime anyway, get rid of him. Luckily, Harley gets over him just about as quickly as we do, blowing up the Ace Chemicals plant, dusting herself off, and trying to start a new life as a bounty hunter/mercenary/thug for hire. But before she can get that business off the ground, she finds herself wrapped up in a scheme involving a secret diamond laser-encoded with the numbers needed to access a secret bank account with all the crime money in the world. (Not quite an uncut gem, but you get my gist.)
Lots of people want the diamond, most especially preening Gotham crime boss Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), who coincidentally wants to kill Harley now that she doesn’t have Mr. J as backup anymore. Only problem is, it’s in the digestive tract of carefree teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Bay Basco), and the bad guys would just as soon cut it out of her than wait for some prune juice to take effect.
Luckily, some of Gotham’s strongest, weirdest women are on the trail too — world-weary detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), superpowered siren Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and crossbow-wielding agent of vengeance Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). If they wanna survive the night and keep Cassandra alive, they’ll all have to work together. It’s a man’s world, baby, but not for much longer.
Now, if you’re focusing on the diamond stuff, and the herky-jerky narrative structure, and the fact that the titular Birds of Prey don’t even really fully assemble until the climax, you might just be looking at the film from the wrong angle. You have to think like Harley Quinn thinks: attention-rattled, anarchic, and wearing a shit-eating grin through the chaos. Cathy Yan‘s action-packed Birds of Prey plays out like one of Harley’s fever dreams, with Harley herself as the ultimate unreliable narrator.
You have to think like Harley Quinn thinks: attention-rattled, anarchic, and wearing a shit-eating grin through the chaos.
Comparisons will inevitably be made to Deadpool, whose success undoubtedly made something as weird and self-aware as Birds of Prey possible. But Yan’s influences veer far more towards Tex Avery and Looney Tunes; the film begins with a Merrie Melodies-style animated backstory for Harley, and the only thing she ever watches is old Tom & Jerry skits. What’s more, her brash Noo Yawk accent and chaotic energy remind you of nothing less than Bugs Bunny with a sledgehammer. Robbie introduced the character in Suicide Squad, but here she’s given so much more to play with, and the lingering oversexed-ness of her wardrobe is traded in for something much more comfortable, fashionable, but still bursts with personality. It’s still sexy, but in a way that feels less gross and more… well, her.
The visual language of the fight choreography owes just as much to the comically-timed destruction of those cartoons, too; Yan stages the scenes with crystal clarity, working in as many prop-based fight gags as she does speed-ramped feats of physical prowess. Whether it’s Harley dispatching a team of goons with all the bric-a-brac at her disposal in a police evidence room, or a climactic car chase on rollerskates, the action in Birds of Prey delivers kinetic, Jackie Chan-style setpieces that don’t disappoint.
As for the rest of the squad, they obviously play second fiddle to Robbie (it’s her showcase through and through, but Yan’s frenetic, candy-coated direction and Christina Hodson‘s dryly witty screenplay give the rest of the cast some fun wrinkles to play. Perez has long been a delight to watch, but it’s especially awesome to see her in such a kick-ass physical role, mining a few unexpected laughs out of the comparatively thankless straight man role. Smollett-Bell exudes an incredibly cagey, powerful presence as Black Canary, even if the plot stows her away until crucial moments. Winstead’s a real standout; her Huntress gets a bit less screentime (and a looser connection to the plot) than the rest, but her bristling self-seriousness makes for some of the film’s best non-Quinn gags.
But a movie about women learning to stand together against the shitty men who wrong them needs a really shitty man to do some really big wrongs, and that’s where Ewan McGregor saunters in. His Roman Sionis is the ultimate overcompensating failson, the kid of a major mob boss trying to break out on his own in Gotham City. McGregor makes a meal of the whole affair, prancing and sneering his way through every scene, “woo”ing like Will Smith in a ’90s movie, wearing the hell out of maroon velvet blazers and an ostentatious array of monogrammed leather gloves. If you require a gurning, over-the-top David Tennant performance, but Tennant isn’t as big a name to attach to your comic book movie, McGregor more than fits the bill.
Now, the film’s far from perfect: the time-hopping structure hurts more than it helps, and the stakes do kinda feel a little low (a diamond? really?). But Yan and Hodson know this, and the plot isn’t the point: it’s about a balls-out showcase of neon-soaked, glittery fun, with the added benefit of weaving in some fun messages about rediscovering yourself in the wake of a toxic relationship. (Fun fact: you don’t even need to be a woman to relate to that journey!) Matthew Libatique‘s Tony Scott-drenched cinematography is a beautiful blend of Joker-level grit (no, not the Leto one) and bubbly Lisa Frank mayhem. The soundtrack is the typical collection of needle drop jams, but pumped full of energy, from “Barracuda” to “Love Rollercoaster.”
Not only does Birds of Prey end up being something delightfully different than Suicide Squad, it manages to actually beat Suicide Squad at its own game. Now get out of Harley Quinn’s way; she’s got a PhD, motherfucker.
Birds of Prey smashes and crashes its way into theaters with rollerskates and a breakfast sandwich in tow February 7th.
Birds of Prey Trailer:
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