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‘Birds of Prey’ offers high-flying fun

February 11, 2020
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It’s fair to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has far outpaced its DC counterpart. One of the biggest reasons for the difference in levels of success has been tone – the MCU has always found ways to make its films fun, while DC has largely produced movies weighed down by a sense of bleak, gray self-seriousness.

Recently, however, the DCEU has started finding its way out of that grimdarkness. Films like “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” have done a better job of finding the fun. And their latest offering – full title “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” – continues in that vein, producing a piece of candy-colored weirdness that is as enjoyable to watch as any film in the franchise thus far.

It’s worth noting that this film is female-driven – not just in front of the camera, but behind it, with Cathy Yan directing from a script by Christina Hodson – in an organic fashion that never comes off as forced or pandering.

It’s not a perfect film – the narrative is a bit haphazard and the structure is all over the place – but by and large, it’s pretty darned good and entertaining as hell. The performances are strong and there are some killer action sequences, along with a few solid gags. Put it all together and you get one of the better DCEU outings.

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, “Bombshell”) has finally done it – she’s broken up with the Joker. And it’s for real this time – she goes out of her way to make a very public statement regarding that relationship, courtesy of a stolen semi and a certain chemical factory. She gets her own place and starts trying to make new friends and find new ways to spend her time.

However, the breakup means that she no longer is protected by the fear inspired by her ex. This means that there are a LOT of people out there with a score to settle – and they finally feel safe to try and exact their respective revenges without the looming shadow of the Joker. Of course, Harley can handle herself – and does so in some entertaining ways.

One particularly angry vengeance seeker is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, “Doctor Sleep”), a crime lord looking to consolidate his power in Gotham. He’s long been tolerant of Harley due to her proximity to the Joker, but now that she’s a free agent, he can do what he likes. And so he starts making plans, plans that involve his psychopathic right-hand man Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina, “Zeroville”) and nightclub singer-turned-driver Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, “One Last Thing”) – also known as Black Canary.

Meanwhile, grizzled Gotham PD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, “The Dead Don’t Die”) is in the process of trying to track down not just Harley, but also a mysterious assassin who is murdering her way through Gotham’s underworld, a woman initially known simply as the Crossbow Killer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, “Gemini Man”) – though she has secrets (including a secret identity) of her own.

Complicating matters is the presence of a huge diamond that also happens to have encoded within it passwords and other details that allow the possessor to access the vast offshore fortune of the Bertinelli crime family, all of whom were brutally massacred years ago … or were they? That diamond and the pursuit of it entangles every one of these people, as well as a young thief named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco in her feature debut) who picks the wrong pocket.

The relentless pursuit of the diamond places everyone in danger and results in a VERY unlikely team-up as Harley and her new associates must band together if they’re to have any hope of surviving.

“Birds of Prey” is a ton of fun, a comic book movie that embraces its origins in ways that the DCEU had yet to do. The colors are bright, the gags are goofy and the action is over-the-top and extremely well-executed; there’s a basic absurdity underlying the proceedings that feels very much of a piece with the source material. It clearly exists in the same world as its predecessors, but still manages to operate with stakes that feel far more personal.

That said, there are some storytelling choices that are a bit challenging. There’s a lot of jumping back and forth in time; it’s not so much that the narrative is hard to follow, but that the constant shifting is a little distracting. And that narrative doesn’t always hold together – it’s a bit thin, with motivations that aren’t always clear and/or sufficient.

Still, there’s a lot to like. Cathy Yan shows herself to be a gifted visual filmmaker; her general aesthetic and knack for action goes a long way toward making up for the narrative issues. And while there are some storytelling issues, screenwriter Hodson also creates plenty of truly engaging and entertaining moments.

And the ensemble does a lot of the heavy lifting. Robbie leads the way – she’s among the best actors currently engaged with superhero cinema, and it shows. In her hands, Harley is a charismatic lunatic, a Maniac Pixie Dream Girl whose bubbliness meshes beautifully with her sociopathy. Perez might be the best female version of “too old for this s—t” that I’ve ever seen. Smollett-Bell is sharp and sardonic as Black Canary, while Winstead is low-key hilarious when she’s not being menacing. Young Basco can hang. Messina is a leering psycho in the best way. And McGregor is 100% going for it in the best way; his Sionis is a preening narcissist who is simultaneously campy and cruel. It’s the perfect tone to strike for a role like this one.

“Birds of Prey” isn’t quite great, but it is really good. And REALLY fun. Ultimately, isn’t that what you want from a movie like this?

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 11 February 2020 07:00

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