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'Birds of Prey' Review: DCEU breaches R-rated territory with hellaciously fun, substantively thin Harley Quinn-led romp

This "Suicide Squad" spinoff is a first for women in comic book movies, but Cathy Yan's movie is just fine making that the means to ultraviolent ends.
Credit: Courtesy: Warner Bros.

In a rare moment of rest amid the firework violence and demented glee in “Birds of Prey,” Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn sits back for a bowl of cereal and catches some “Tom and Jerry.” It makes total sense that she’d watch the brash and over-the-top loony tune, which could not be a more apt Easter egg for Cathy Yan’s brash and over-the-top movie, a spinoff of 2016’s boorish “Suicide Squad” that borrows its predecessor’s pop-punk attitude and dials it up to an R-rated blunt-force romp often reminiscent of the self-aware ultra-bone-breaking of “John Wick.”

It’s also a movie that takes its narrative setup to some delightfully meta and cathartic heights. The DC Extended Universe’s recent re-prioritizing means separating itself from the artistic misfire that was “Suicide Squad,” in which Robbie’s Harley, shackled and oversexualized, is puppeteered by Jared Leto’s edgy, icky Joker incarnation. Harley, and “Birds of Prey,” quite literally sets that past ablaze as she blows up the ACE Chemicals plant – the birthplace of her altar ego – in an unfettered (and target-planting) act of independence early on in the first act. Like the mallet-swinging deviant at its center, Yan’s spike-collared movie forges its own feminist path to stomp down, vengefully tearing into a male-dominated genre with reckless abandon while merging the comical and crass. 

Though the screenplay from “Bumblebee” scribe Christina Hodson never fully pulls the pin from the grenade in its examinations of female butt-kicker reclaimed from male filmmaker, there are stretches in the inconstantly-paced “Birds of Prey” that joyfully prove it couldn’t care less: Its women are playing by their own rules. Between this, “Black Widow,” “Wonder Woman 1984” and “The Eternals,” 2020 will bring us four live-action superhero movies solely directed by women – there were just two from 2000 through 2019 – and “Birds of Prey” is jaunty enough to be a worthy lighter of the match.

As its title indicates, “Birds of Prey” (“And the Fabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”) is the tale of a teamup, splintering out from Robbie to offer up vignettes on multiple women breaking out of masculine subjugation. They occupy a space between antihero and PG-13 do-gooder, and the murkiness of archetype adds flavor to when they finally unite. 

“Scott Pilgrim” and “10 Cloverfield Lane” alum Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the crossbow-toting Huntress, seeking vengeance while delightfully chewing scenery with a self-serious air that brings the brooding Batman to mind. The mantle of Black Canary is taken up by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, making the transition from the small screen with a character whose arc most explicitly contends with the patriarchal pollution of this world. An ineffable Rosie Perez is Renee Montoya, an undervalued Gotham City detective injecting grit into a familiar narrative. And the young Korean/Filipino actress Ella Jay Basco is wonderful irreverent as Cassandra Cain, the Nobody whose pick-pocketing prowess thrusts her into the center of the plot, and of the sights of Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis – or Black Mask – doing the absolute most as a crime lord always keeping a fragile side at bay. Obi-Wan has never had this much fun.

The delirious action in “Birds of Prey” – more visceral than in any other DC film I can think of – is its most fully-realized element, showing off a variety of inventive set pieces that are mostly thrilling so long as you can endure overloud sound work that threatens to derail the enjoyment factor. Taking generic beat-em-ups and mixing into them guns that fire glitter bombs, kinetic camera work, great comedic timing from Robbie and a carnival-esque tone to juxtapose the brutality, the movie is constantly seeking a higher RPM to escalate to; it usually triumphs in continuing to top itself without fully reaching “Deadpool”-levels of gore. Credit goes to Yan for ensuring these – the movie’s most riveting scenes, along with a spectacular animated prologue – stay coherent. 

So fast do the fists, bullets and pangs of humor fly in these sequences, in fact, that “Birds of Prey’s” actual story finds it hard to keep pace. In trying to mimic the madcap madness of the violent segments it’s stitching together, the chronology of events falls apart rather early, despite Harley’s voiceover efforts to keep it all making sense. The general conceit – Harley and Cassandra are trying to stay one step ahead of a bloodthirsty city out to get them and collect their ransom – mostly rings clear, but often the film resembles a messily-painted clown face on a gritty crime saga (though the actual makeup and styling work in the movie totally sells Gotham City’s deranged underbelly, in case the face-skinning side hobbies of McGrego’s Roman don’t do it for you).

Credit: Courtesy: Warner Bros.

For better or worse, though, Yan wraps her energetic filmmaking in the mind of its central character, and the bizarre tonal swings would only truly seem out of place if this wasn’t about a harlequin who rarely thinks about the gunfire waiting outside the bodega after she waxes poetic about the love she holds for breakfast sandwiches (one of the movie’s best, most hilariously sincere gags). There’s no apologies on the film’s part for it being constantly distracted with itself – indeed, that’s part of the fun – but it can blunt the impact of its stabbing the fabric of cinematic patriarchy.

Despite “Birds of Prey’s” hesitance to fully dive into the psychology of its characters – even as it makes perfect sense for it not to – what the movie most emphatically represents is a DC Extended Universe that, in its recent recalibration, satisfies and is satisfied in offering counter-programming to itself. The brand’s last three efforts – the mythologically-bonkers “Aquaman,” Amblin-influenced “Shazam!” and cathartically-riotous “Birds of Prey” – could not be more different in style or sentiment, and it makes expecting the next film under the DCEU umbrella ("Wonder Woman 1984," due in the summer) that much more exciting. What’s more: They’re all legitimate signatures of the filmmakers bringing those stories to life in the name of unshackled vision, which is still an edge the DCEU holds over Marvel Studio’s historic endeavors. “Avengers: Endgame” may have brought an 11-year corporate risk to the finish line, but I'll be damned if “Birds of Prey” doesn't have more aesthetic verve and surprises.

“Nothing gets a guy’s attention like violence,” Harley says at one point in “Birds of Prey.” There isn’t much indication that little more than violence wins the movie’s own attention, either; a bombastic finale culminates not with an overblown statement on girl power, but with a body getting blown in two. I’m inclined to respect it for that—“Birds of Prey” is at its best when it feels like a nuclear course-correcting of the comparably-quaint “Suicide Squad,” and the first live-action all-female comic-book-movie team could care less about being a grand proverb on feminism in the process. It just wants its breakfast sandwich, with a side of barb-wired emancipation.  

"Birds of Prey" is rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material

Starring: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell

Directed by Cathy Yan