‘Birds of Prey’ (2020) | Movie Review

The smartest pivot Warner Bros. and DC have decided to make with their feature film slate is to almost entirely abandon the notion the films will connect in any way. Their last three at-bats, Aquaman, Shazam!, and now Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), share essentially no DNA with one another, perhaps with exception of not being as dour and serious as the Zack Snyder half of the slate. Let Marvel have their interconnected, homogenous universe. DC instead does what comic books actually do, let each character and each creator have its own style and approach. Aquaman went big and camp to highly entertaining effect, and Shazam! went small, personal, and funny with a true heart. They, along with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, have been the comic book films I have been most knocked out by since Christopher Nolan was helming Batman.

Now, we have Birds of Prey, an attempt to distance the Harley Quinn character, played by Margot Robbie, from her origins in the truly awful Suicide Squad. Robbie’s Quinn easily emerged from that atrocity as the film’s best element, despite her being given shoddy material and a camera that would not stop ogling her in her hot pants. She clearly connected with that already beloved character and wanted to do her justice, taking a very active producer role on Birds of Prey. The result turns out to be much like Harley herself, fun at times and a true mess at others. In pulling away from its roots, it’s an unqualified success. In creating a wholly satisfying tale, much less so.

Harley Quinn breaks up with the Joker, who Jared Leto played in Suicide Squad and, thankfully, is absent here. Now that she no longer has the clown prince of crime as a paramour, all of the people (mostly men) she has wronged through the years are coming out of the woodwork to exact their revenge, most notably the crime lord Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). In other parts of Gotham, there are a few other women with their own agendas. First you have nightclub singer/police informant Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) under Sionis’ thumb, put-upon detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), young naïve pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), and mob daughter turned assassin Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) out for vengeance against the people who murdered her entire family in front of her as a child.

What brings them together? A MacGuffin, of course! Here, there is a diamond with some gobbeldy-gook inside it making it super valuable. Sionis wants it, Cain steals it, and people try to get her. Here’s the thing… it takes a full hour out of this 109-minute film to set up all of those pieces. Harley narrates the film, jumping back and forth in time with an eye on being playful and self-aware, but this story structure wears thin quickly. It jumbles the motivations, stretches out dead air, and kills momentum when it should be building. For a film wanting to be frantic and fun, it comes off as plodding more often than not. A good portion of the jokes not landing does not help its cause for fun either.

Where I cannot deny this film and the work of director Cathy Yan is in its aesthetics. A comic book film with colors that pop! Unheard of! And this does not just go to Harley Quinn’s fun costuming. Each location and character do not hold back on the vibrancy we see in everyday life. For some (very dumb) reason, a lot people equate realism in film with a washed out, desaturated look. Have you looked around recently? Color is everywhere. The world is an exciting place to look at, and the way Birds of Prey uses color, not just for aesthetic pleasure but a tonal statement, feels more real to me. I think of a foot chase between Quinn and Montoya through a marketplace where each little stand and shop fills the frame with a rainbow palette without drawing attention to itself.

I also must give props to the stunt team here. Due to an almost complete lack of superpowers here, all of the action here remains ground level, hand-to-hand fights, car and foot chases, and weapon use (luckily that being with not a lot of guns). Chad Stahelski (who serves as the film’s second unit director) brought his stunt team for this, and while the fights here are not the magic that the John Wick fights are, they come pretty close. What hurts these fights, though, is not their execution but just the mere fact you do not really care about these characters and what happens to them.

No blame can be placed on the cast. Robbie gives Harley everything she has. Winstead comes out of this a standout, playing a deeply serious character who throws out dismissive one-liners with the best of them. However, her character, codenamed Huntress, never really integrates herself well into the tapestry of the story. The same can be said for Perez’s Montoya too. By the time all of the characters we have been following meetup, no time remains for this group of women to develop a rapport with one another, which is really what you want in a fun team-up movie. They all get lost in the machinations of the plot, which is about as routine as they come.

Luckily for the people behind Birds of Prey, the work of crafting their own world for Harley Quinn separate from the other DC films is over. They have their cast of characters and now are off to the races to really dig into these people and have a fun time. With the exception of the screenwriter, I would love to see Yan, Robbie, and company all come back for another film. They have the right foundation to build on with tremendous potential. This first stab may leave a lot to be desired, but plenty of good and great things get moments to shine. In a future installment, those adjustments could easily be made to make the next at-bat a home run. Although, use a mallet instead of a bat.

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