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Film Review: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

Birds of Prey

Prepare yourself for Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Armed with a hilarious script, a kick-ass cast, and visual style and flair to spare this R-Rated Trippy Action extravaganza is everything you could possibly want from a film about Harley Quinn…  and then some!

Cathy Yan’s second feature film breaks all the rules that you’re told in storytelling not to do.  Don’t break the fourth wall.  Don’t create a non-linear storyline.  Don’t have a voice-over narration.  Don’t make your heroes unsympathetic.  Don’t make R-Rated Comic Book Movies.  Don’t make movies for women.  But everyone loves a rule breaker… and that’s just what Birds of Prey and its primary star Margot Robbie are… rule breakers to the nth degree.  Their and our reward is a wildly entertaining film that will reward multiple viewings. 

Harley Quinn (Robbie) cannot catch a break.  Troubled since birth (you see her conception, in a hilarious Tex Avery inspired opening) Harleen Quinzel has tried nothing more than making the best out of the life she’s been given.  But a few bad decisions (and I do mean bad) have Harley at the wrong end of a bad breakup with the Clown Prince of Crime (Joker, who is never really seen, thankfully).  Not only does Harley have to contend with a broken heart but a Crime Lord fond of ripping peoples faces off (Ewan McGregor), a fringe cop (Rosie Perez), a Singer with a deadly voice (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a crossbow-wielding killer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and a kid-thief with sticky fingers (Ella Jay Basco).  With all those people wanting her dead or suffering what’s a girl to do?  Take some names, kick some ass, and most of all make some desperately needed friends. 

Part of the genius of Birds of Prey is how it melds genres with ease and style.  The film is at its core about the power of the bond between women.  Though the film is masquerading around as John Wick on shrooms and cocaine told by a truly unreliable narrator.  The way that the story works at every turn is thanks in large part to how Yan brilliant witty direction, and screenwriter Christina Hodson’s intricate hilarious script work in tandem to not just give you clarity but allows you to mainline huge chunks of the narrative without even knowing you are.  The film then is allowed to be a freeform visual feast for long entertaining swaths.  Yan’s work here is original and the right amount of inspired by the works of Scion Sono, Tex Avery, John Woo, and Amy Heckerling to give any film fan enough to deep dive into with great reward. 

Robbie creates a Harley Quinn very different from the oversexualized one in Suicide Squad.  This Harley is tired of the bullshit that men pass off onto her including her main man “Mister J”, wanting nothing more than girlfriends to stand by her the way she’s seen others have.  That core central conflict is not only the broken heart, soul, and wicked humor of the film, it is what allows for Robbie to recontextualize the character.  No longer a deprogrammed woman of abuse but an independent wild card anti-hero who suffers no fools and men’s charms. 

As much as the film is built around Margot Robbie’s talents and magnetism as an actor this is, for the most part, an ensemble piece.  Robbie’s unselfish “share in the wealth” approach to making a Harley Quinn movie and turning it into a Birds of Prey film is one of the most ingenious moves a star has made in the last decade.  Because of this, we are treated to a host of great female performances that work individually as much as they work at a group.  Instead of one good star performance, we get a host of female performers in well-written roles.

Beginning with Jurnee Smollett-Bell, her performance as Black Canary is an instant star-making role.  She sings, dances, smolders, looks good in a suit, and most of all kicks butt in a way that few women have allowed to do in roles.  One can expect huge things after seeing her in this role. 

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the Huntress brings an amazing awkward but hilarious energy to the role of the vengeance-seeking Mafia daughter.  Birds capitalizes on just how good of a comedian the actor is. 

Rounding out this trio is the legendary Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya.  Seeing Perez dig deep and breathe life into a role that seems tailor-made for her is one of the cinematic treats of recent memory.  There is a meta-textual feel in the role that gives Perez the extra pop and power that will make any audience member of a certain age realize how much the filmic landscape has missed her particular energy.

Speaking of energy, one cannot forget the one-two punch of Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina as Black Mask and Victor Zsasz.  Dressed to the nines, David Bowie aura back in play, and flamboyantly evil, this is the role that McGregor was born to play.  Black Mask is evil, yes for sure.  But he does it looking so damn good, relishing every second.  Messina brings a new definition of the Right-hand man.  His frustrated quiet serial killer is given an extra layer with the actor playing Zsasz as a reserved lover and protector of Roman Sionis aka the Black Mask.

Birds of Prey is film pop confection done right; big, loud, angry, funny, profane, and best of all entertaining. This one is a winner.  Make sure to buy extra popcorn, candy, and soda for this one.

Birds of Prey is out February 6th in theaters everywhere

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