The DC Extended Universe struggled mightily out of the gates, fiercely attempting to combat the behemoth success that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The initial result was a lackluster product, as it rushed to establish connections and formulate team-ups that would in theory rival The Avengers. After limping by with Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, the studio finally struck gold with Wonder Woman. Unfortunately, from there the universe bottomed out with Justice League and Suicide Squad. DC’s most ambitious films doubled as their biggest failures, mired in production issues and a lack of succinct vision. Through this collection of misfires DC finally discovered the faces of their films moving forward, and their names were Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn. Wonder Woman combined Gal Gadot’s perfect portrayal with excellent direction and a proper solo story. Then there was Suicide Squad, which was a muddled mess that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. It was unable to be saved by a great Will Smith role and Margot Robbie profoundly capturing the essence of Harley Quinn. Now with a clear tonal focus of how to properly utilize Margot Robbie’s talent, Birds of Prey builds an entire playground designed solely for the character to roam free. The result is a film as zany as Harley herself, providing a humorously action packed, if often messy, experience that embraces its R rating.
The disjointed story follows Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) just after her recent breakup with the Joker, narrated from the omniscient perspective of Harley herself. The devastated Harley must now cope with being on her own for the first time, as well as deal with the massive target on her back from everyone in Gotham City who wants her dead. At the top of the list is a crime lord by the name of Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Over the course of Harley’s misadventures, she crosses paths with Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a down-on-her-luck detective, Blank Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer at Sionis’ club, Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a revenge-seeking hitwoman, and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a young pickpocket.
The film fully commits to the high-energy craziness that reflects Harley Quinn’s demeanor, serving as the greatest strength, and weakness, of the story. On one hand, the nonsequential story carries a lighthearted, often humorous tone throughout which combines with some truly outstanding fight choreography to create a rollercoaster ride of thrills and unpredictability. DC finally demonstrates that it isn’t afraid to delve into R-rated territory, which suits the content perfectly. After all, Harley Quinn is a villain, and villains don’t play by PG-13 rules. Letting loose this collection of Gotham villains and anti-heroes is the best creative decision director Cathy Yan made (along with bringing on the director of the John Wick franchise to choreograph the action sequences). On the other hand, the decision to make Harley an omniscient narrator falls flat, with her recurrent voiceover work proving extraneous, and distracting from what’s onscreen. The screenplay works diligently to cycle its story through Harley’s character to the extent that the colorful supporting cast suffers from lack of spotlight and underdevelopment.
Fortunately, the performance that Birds of Prey depends on is marvelous one, as Margot Robbie continues to prove that Harley Quinn is the role she was born to play. Robbie gives 100% here, infusing the portrayal with her own youthful presence to create something full of energy and life that feels as if pulled straight from the cartoons. It’s fantastic work, yet not even the best of the movie. That distinction belongs to Ewan McGregor, who steals the spotlight away from Robbie in her own movie with a gloriously over the top showcase. McGregor dials it up to 11, brimming with varying emotions from scene to scene. He creates the most layered antagonist seen thus far in the DC movies, entertaining with each moment that the screen is graced with his presence. Aside from these two titans, the remainder of the supporting cast is given disappointingly little to work with. It’s a shame, as Mary Elizabeth Winstead is great here, providing a unique take on the Huntress persona. She inhabits the vengeful character with an intriguing shade of complexity and social awkwardness, inciting the desire for follow up adventures involving her. Jurnee Smollett-Bell is solid enough as Black Canary, while Rosie Perez and Ella Jay Basco prove dull in their roles, though neither is given enough to do to make it matter all that much.
Overall, Birds of Prey is a fun peak into the mind of an enjoyable comic book character. The tone is upbeat, the characters are interesting, the soundtrack is great, and the action is well executed. The story drifts all over the place, much like that of the central figure’s sanity, and the climax leaves much to be desired, but it’s a joyous journey nonetheless. This is a movie that knows exactly what it wants to be and succeeds in carrying out that vision. The result is an intentionally uneven product that is simply good. I give it 3 out of 5 Stars and recommend it to fans of DC comics, quality action, or Margot Robbie.