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Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) review (2020)

Dir. Cathy Yan

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Serving as both a follow-up and a spin-off to Suicide SquadBirds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)‘s relationship to that much-maligned film is about as complicated at the one Harley Quinn had with the Joker. Birds of Prey feels as if it’s doing a lot of course-correcting, conceding to the relentlessly loud noise made by the daily outrage machine that blasted the toxic, abusive union between Daddy’s Little Monster and the Clown Prince of Crime. While there’s enough to enjoy here to warrant a recommendation, this is still fairly one-dimensional stuff from the perennially second place Cinematic Universe that has become defined by playing catch-up to its archnemesis.

Margot Robbie reprises her role as Harley Quinn, proving she can go from figure skater to Fox News staffer to a cunning deviant faster than Drake can go zero to 100. She, too, serves as our narrator, constantly chiming in to give us more information whilst actively controlling the chronology of the story, zipping us in and out of the timeline. We initially see her in a dark place following her breakup with the Joker, which has left her distraught, with difficultly standing on her own two feet. She’s been a harlequin much of her professional life, acting as a servant to a malicious madman who treated her as a prize and took her for granted every step of the way.

In due time, Harley Quinn manages to make some new friends of her own, including Gotham City detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, who I liked a lot in It Could Happen to You many moons ago), Dinah “Black Canary” Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a lounge singer whose voice is her ultimate weapon of defense, The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a former Mafia daughter now looking to exact revenge on the men who murdered her family, and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a sticky-fingered foster kid who gets possession of a diamond after picking the wrong pocket. The diamond belongs to Mr. Zsasz (an unrecognizable and against-type performance from Chris Messina), a henchman of narcissistic crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), also known as the “Black Mask.

Director Cathy Yan — her mainstream debut following a handful of independent efforts — and cinematographer Matthew Libatique capture Gotham City with a familiar brand of DC grimness we’ve seen over the last several years. Nonetheless, there’s some interesting elements at play, from the fog-drenched streets to the grungy chemical plants that further characterize this place as somewhere you do not want to be. Against this murky backdrop, Harley Quinn, her loud outfits, and pearly white smile accentuated by dark lipstick act as a radiant force of nuclear light that livens up this hellscape. Robbie’s energy as one of the most enigmatic personalities of the recent superhero renaissance is retained, and this time around, we get a better sense of her acrobatic combat skills than we did in Suicide Squad.

Yan tautly captures those sequences of hand-to-hand combat. Her most efficient work might come during the scene when Harley breaks Cassandra out of prison after causing a sprinkler and cell-door malfunction, positing the soaking wet prisoners as sharks and Harley in the center as a bucket of chum. Every backwards flip-kick, knifing, and display of handgun prowess, regardless of how gravity-defying, proves to be engrossing because Yan nor editors Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff let us get lost in the bustle.

The drawback is how one-dimensional all of this can feel. We don’t learn much meaningful about Harley Quinn nor most of the ensemble (who don’t share as much screentime together as a unit as anticipated) other than they are societal rejects who have been kicked and doubted much of their life and are finally working towards their own emancipation. This is the kind of picture that needed some prior development in order to be a truly successful showcase. It suffers a similar fate as Suicide Squad insofar that we’re bombarded with new faces, many of whom we don’t get much time to meet. Ewan McGregor is a ton of fun as a giddy, gleefully self-absorbed villain (his “ewww” remark is going to be on some year-end highlights, mark my words), but him in the mix in addition to five anti-heroines leads to clutter in the screenplay department.

The entertainment may be surface-level for Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), but it’s another welcome change-of-pace for a genre that started to wear on me a couple years ago. I made a personal commitment to myself that going forward, I’ll only seek out the superhero films that I really want to see (I can go a few years without another X-Men film and truthfully don’t much care about Black Widow). Having said that, I’ll take a boisterous roller-coaster about a maniacal woman’s road to liberation over a by-the-numbers origins story most days of the week. Warts and all, Birds of Prey knows being different is what got Harley Quinn mainstream recognition, and beating to the tune of her character’s deafening drum carries the project even when it starts to sag.

Starring: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ali Wong, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Directed by: Cathy Yan.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality in North Central Illinois. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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