Slowly and doggedly, DC Comics’ filmmaking division has been crawling back to relevance. Since the 2016 film that shall not be named, the results have been uneven, with Wonder Woman, Shazam, and Joker‘s mostly-thumbs-up results being balanced out by the stink of Suicide Squad, Justice League, and Aquaman.
It’s been a positive enough trajectory to set the table for this week’s stellar Birds of Prey, which appears to benefit from the DC powers-that-be telling its writer, director, and crew to go completely nuts. This bombastic, hypercolor explosion of filmmaking is exactly what the comic-film industry needs: equal parts slapdash and artfully arranged, designed to please anyone who wants more depth and weight in a “light,” humor-focused comic film. I went into its screening expecting a killer performance from Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, which came true. I left surprised and stunned by the rest of the film’s bloody, candy-colored pieces falling into place around her performance.
I shaved my what for this?
Let’s start with the film’s easiest point of praise. DC Comics’ Bronx-accented scoundrel Harley Quinn steps out of the shadow of her usual criminal-clown boyfriend, and the results, in Robbie’s nimble hands, rank at the top of the modern comic-film acting pantheon. Unlike her performance in Suicide Squad, where the character wavered between “lead” and “sidekick” status, her return in BoP enjoys a front-and-center placement, which the actor relishes.
A quick, spoiler-free plot introduction: Quinn and the Joker have ended their relationship, which we learn after a cartoon-animated recap of Quinn’s classic origin story (troubled childhood, became a psychologist, fell in love with a crazed supervillain, yadda yadda). If you’re keeping score: this all happens in a self-contained version of DC Comics’ Gotham, as opposed to one connected to the events of either Suicide Squad or Joker.
Once the breakup becomes public knowledge, Gotham’s underworld is quick to react… because Quinn has picked up some enemies over the years. Now that Joker isn’t around to protest or protect, everyone wants their cut of Quinn’s figurative (or literal) scalp—perhaps none more than the slimy crime lord Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
Eventually, the film gets its plot ducks in a row, particularly in connecting the origin stories of Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) to Quinn’s “fantabulous emancipation” from Joker. One of the first wonderful things about the film, however, is its interest in putting entertainment and insanity ahead of chronology. Time rewinds and fast-forwards whenever Quinn pipes up as a narrator, but always in an announced and appreciable way, as opposed to the silent whiplash you might expect from a Tarantino-esque production.
Quinn’s appearances and interruptions function like the filmmakers’ id: showing up to blurt, giggle, and set off fireworks whenever the film has an organic opening for humor, combat, or even context. When these moments emerge, Robbie is consistently handed opportunities to smash the film’s fourth wall with a carnival-style mallet—sometimes by going nuts, other times by surprising viewers with somber reflections. But every extreme of the character would fall apart without Robbie understanding the subtleties of cartoon-like insanity. Thank goodness she nails a crucial point: Quinn isn’t just the film’s jester. She’s also the everyperson whose urges, excitement, regret, and wide-eyed wonder are easy to empathize with—at least, as sold by Robbie’s lovably mischievous performance.
As a result, when she crushes a scumbag’s legs with a well-timed stomp, or pours a margarita for a child, or drunkenly falls over while “helping” a cohort fight some creepy men in an alleyway, we laugh as much as we take her side of the story—which is an impressive feat, considering how carelessly she breaks the law and double-crosses friends.
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Robbie also benefits from an incredible foil in McGregor, whose take on Black Mask is hilariously douchey. He’s a prissy, squirming germaphobe. He proudly misappropriates African relics, then mansplains them to a person of color. And he goes down a few dramatic insecurity spirals, in ways that honestly show up Jake Gyllenhall’s similar, solid work in Spider-man: Far from Home. Perhaps best of all, McGregor lets his natural Scottish accent sneak out while otherwise portraying an American jerk, and the result sounds like an American celebrity who’s added a slight British accent for no reason. It’s a quality comic touch.
To the script’s credit, Birds of Prey doesn’t try to balance Quinn’s anti-hero wackiness with a straight-laced counterpart. It’s all anti-heroes here. Huntress is a trauma-fueled vigilante; Canary clings to the criminal world’s underbelly while looking out for herself; and Montoya eventually offers figurative middle fingers to her police-force colleagues. The best part is, each non-Quinn character receives a quick-and-dirty mix of backstory and exposition—the kind that sews up the film’s logic without slowing its momentum.
Unfortunately, the Montoya plotline sticks too rigidly to classic ’70s cop-film cliches, so much so that they eventually become the butt of a joke. Perez’s portrayal suffers as a result, with her liveliest moments being limited to the film’s conclusion. Smollett-Bell, on the other hand, frequently gets an opportunity to bring Quinn down a peg and shines in her role, while Winstead enjoys a slow-burn opportunity to build Huntress’ personality. By the time viewers get to know Huntress’ quirks, she offers a perfectly balanced pour of weirdness into a film that’s already damned weird.
Birds of Prey has continuity where it counts… which is crucial, because Director Cathy Yan loves otherwise dumping continuity for the sake of fun. Take one moment, where Quinn is soaking in fire-alarm sprinklers while pummeling ex-cons. In the very next, she’s completely dry and walloping foes with a conveniently placed baseball bat. What the heck? How’d that happen? Birds of Prey loves setting up these sorts of Wile E. Coyote moments, in which Quinn and friends can rob a grocery store in broad daylight, then chug 27 shots of liquor, then get whacked in the face, and come out of each visually dizzying scene unscathed.
The Royal Tenem-sake-bombs
And what a show this is to watch. Each fight scene revels in largely unbroken camera shots, allowing us to marvel in Robbie pulling off a surprising number of her own martial-arts stunts. (This Hong Kong-worthy fight cinematography made me blurt to an accompanying friend: “John Wick? Meet John Chick.” My friend insisted I not use that line in this review. And yet.) Birds of Prey also employs a ridiculous mix of slow-motion footage and overblown sound effects to sell punches, bat strikes, and limb dislocations. (No, the slow-motion impact moments never get old.)
There’s also the matter of some of the best set design I’ve ever seen in a Western action film. Every location, from Black Mask’s cocaine-chic lair to his mirrors-and-neon nightclub, or the romp through a never-ending flea market that leads to Quinn’s ramshackle apartment, is peppered with memorable details. I can still close my eyes and recall the scenes vividly—as if Wes Anderson and Kesha had a freak lovechild. This is only boosted by a series of tastefully placed, Beavis & Butthead-caliber gags, which squeeze bellybuster laughs out of otherwise rote or plot-sewing moments.
Again, it’s Robbie who brings these scenes to life the most in Birds of Prey, as she turns in her most Charlie Chaplin-caliber performance to date. Whether it’s a co-star, a massive mallet, a pair of rollerskates, or a precious breakfast sandwich, Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn turns everything she touches into something funnier and more interesting. Bravo, DC Comics. You did something I never thought imaginable after Batman V Superman: You made me a believer. Consider Birds of Prey your first must-see action film of 2020.