Review: BIRDS OF PREY, Glitter And Gloss, Giggles And Gore, Gunpowder Girl Power, All This And More
Some break-ups are rougher than others. For a woman like Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, reprising her role from the spectacular disaster that was Suicide Squad), this break up is rougher than most. Formerly the Joker's right hand, at the opening of Birds of Prey, she finds herself cast aside after attempting to assert herself as the impetus behind many of the Clown Prince of Crime's most glorious capers. Initially distraught after having enmeshed herself in an admittedly unhealthy obsession with her former beau, Quinn soon finds soothing in the scorched-earth method of recovery, quickly discovering that picking up the pieces might not be as easy as she thinks.
Quinn soon finds herself in the crosshairs of local gang boss, Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor clearly having the time of his life), who has given her two choices. Either help him recover a stolen diamond key to asserting complete control over the Gotham City crime world, or die. Being a woman keen on survival, Quinn chooses the latter, and the chase is on. It turns out that the diamond is in the hands of a pre-teen pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), and what started as a hunt, turns into a quest to protect this spunky girl from hordes of mercenaries attempting to beat Quinn to the punch.
Because life in a comic book movie can never be simple, Quinn not only finds herself in the unlikely position of guardian, she's also in the middle of a revenge plot spearheaded by a stone faced killer calling herself The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), fending off a rogue cop with a chip on her shoulder named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and a secretly deadly songbird known as Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Through a series of delightfully over-choreographed fight sequences, the women find themselves reluctantly on the same side of a fight they were not ready for, and things get really bloody.
Director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson make the wise decision to ignore most of what has come before Birds of Prey in Harley's on-screen DC Universe history and instead make this latest entry a standalone feature. Following in the massively successful footsteps of 2017's Aquaman, Birds of Prey trades dour serious sleaze, for a more gloriously salacious and gory interpretation of the Gotham crime world. Harley Quinn's Gotham is as bright and bubbly as her own outsized personality, and Yan's film seems to be filtered through Quinn's eyes, delivering a film bursting with style.
Each of the film's numerous fight sequences feel more like intricately choreographed dance sequences than the knock-down drag-out gritty fare that's become de rigueur in films like The Raid and John Wick, but in this world, it works. Birds of Prey almost never takes itself too seriously, instead focusing on delivering crowd-pleasing candy-colored violence and action. Whether it's a sprinkler soaked brawl in a jail block; vehicular madness involving cars, motorcycles, and roller skates; or an extended sequence of gymnastic violence in an intricately designed carnival funhouse, Birds of Prey delivers a kind of adrenaline soaked thrill that sets it apart from many of its contemporaries.
Birds of Prey is the first of the official DC Universe canonical films to arrive in cinemas with an R rating, and it certainly earns the distinction. Apart from the occasionally saucy language, the real fun is had with the over the top violence that rivals any adult action film in recent memory. Not since Lexi Alexander's underrated Punisher: War Zone has a major comic book film so gleefully indulged in exploring the gory potential of the genre. Bones are graphically broken, skin flayed from still living victims, and people are straight-up exploded all for the love of a good gag. Birds of Prey feels more of a piece with films like Kick-Ass than Suicide Squad in a lot of places in that regard.
It's that kind of envelope pushing that allows the film to expand and explore the tropes and clichés of comic book movies in new and interesting ways, thanks in large part to the women behind the scenes and their perspectives. The relationships between the women in the film, both communal and adversarial, feel real and nuanced. Little touches like Harley offering her co-conspirator a hair tie in the middle of a massive brawl are things that make the film's relationships ring true and add a layer that has been missing in the largely testosterone driven world of big budget action.
Birds of Prey brings a fresh point of view to an increasingly stagnant genre in imminent danger of oversaturation. It doesn't feel beholden to toe the DC company line and integrate itself into any larger universe in any intricate way, and the audience doesn't need a whole lot of prior knowledge to enjoy the on screen action. It's not going to convert any critics of the current state of blockbuster culture, but for those in the mood for a good, gory, goofy, glittery, over-the-top extravaganza, Birds of Prey is like doing a line of spiked Pixy Stix dust off of a rainbow unicorn's horn, and I am into it.