Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Since the catastrophe that was “Justice League,” the inconsistent DC cinematic universe has churned out critical and commercial hits in the vein of “Shazam!,” Aquaman,” and “Joker” with each entry doing their own thing, unrestrained from tacky world building requirements. With “Birds of Prey,” the once mangled studio continues on the correct path: cutting back, embracing the madness, and allowing fresh voices the creative freedom to make bold narrative decisions.
Technically speaking, this flick picks up with Harley Quinn after 2016’s awful “Suicide Squad” - though, you wouldn’t go as far as to call this is a sequel, more or less a distant cousin twice removed. Aside from a shoutout or two to “Mr J” as Harley refers to Jared Leto’s short lived Joker, or a wanted poster with Captain Boomerang, “Birds of Prey” is devoid of any connections to past installments. An obvious comparison is the movie has the style and attitude of “Deadpool,” with its relentlessly entertaining action sequences, sly narration, and constant fourth wall breaks from Quinn herself who is still adjusting to life after cutting ties with the prince of darkness.
Like Reynolds before her, Margot Robbie clearly has an affection for this character and wants to see her treated with respect, and considering she was the unoffical champ of “Suicide Squad” - “Birds of Prey” is fueled with her manic hyperactive energy, assuring the audience they never get bored. Whether it’s Quinn giving us a detailed description on how she prefers her egg sandwich prepared, or trying to weasel out of a tight situation, “Birds of Prey” keeps things flowing. There’s no need to have seen David Ayers’s previous villain team-up movie in order to follow along: there’s a bright a bubbly animated prologue that quickly sets the tone in that Harley’s finally riding solo, and is emancipated from her responsibilities to Joker.
Except, with this newfound lease on life, Harley makes a grand gesture to the entire city of Gotham that she is single and now all her enemies want a piece of the pie. Considering she no longer has the protection that comes with being the first lady in crime, out of the shadows come a slew of gangsters and thugs looking to amend their grievances. This puts Harley on a mad dash to find sanctuary, like John Wick at the end of "Chapter Two."
Chief amongst the baddies who want to claim Quinn for themselves is a slinky Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) - aka Black Mask - who needs the frantic spirit to help keep his growing gangster empire in check. Others out for blood include Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who fights prejudice on a daily basis and Sionis beach blonde henchmen played by Chris Messina. There is some inklings of a narrative hiding within the highly caffeinated Baz Lurhman inspired battle royales, stemming from a young pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who steals a priceless diamond that, for reasons screenwriter Christina Hodson struggles to explain, is basically one giant MacGuffin.
Cue the other lively and colorful characters that wander into the film: there’s Helena Bertinelli or Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) but literally everyone calls her “The Crossbow Killer”; Dinah Lance or Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is a lounge singer who works for Sionis, but aspires to use her pipes to fight the bad guys. Together, these anti-heroes - dubbed Birds of Prey - come together for one common purpose, and that’s to kick some major ass, all to the step of a highly punk electro soundtrack that offers new variations of beloved songs you’ve known your whole life.
Director Cathy Yan - helming her first mainstream blockbuster - manages to keep a firm grip on the overall presentation of the movie, effectively ensuring that no character gets left behind and keeps the action ultraviolent when it needs too. Still, like Harley Quinn herself, “Birds of Prey'' can't resist hopping all over the place, like a crazy relative who seems to remember important moments of a story as they happen, there’s a stream of consciousness here that beats you to the point of submission: we know that Quinn is a bit looney and nuts, but her constant reminders grow tiresome.
At least the dynamics among the leads seems to be the biggest strength “Birds of Prey” can offer. Each woman (especially Winstead who makes a terrific impression) gets a chance to show off their comedic chops and stand toe-to-toe with Robbie’s ginormous screen presence. McGregor seems to enjoy the campy excess he radiates playing the germaphobe and over indulgent Sionis. More terrifying is Messina, whose quiet Nazi-like appearance provides the more cringe-worthy moments of the film and it’s unlike any work the actor has previously done.
But “Birds Of Prey” rides on the coattails of its wacky irreverent humor and Robbie’s freakish side whose given full reign to expand on her character from “Suicide Squad” in all its R rated glory. Yan never seems held back by the studio system who has to maintain an image for their brand, and the “Dead Pigs” director seems to understand the pressure. Yes “Birds of Prey” is filled with busty and implausible action sequences galore, but it does plant a slick pro feminist message in a sea of testosterone infused superhero flicks. Maybe this isn’t a man’s world after all.