Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 49 minutes
As sold by its marketing, “Birds of Prey” is a total blast of glittery, violent, girl power from start to finish. Picking up soon’ish after the events of “Suicide Squad” (though you have no need to see that film in order to follow this one), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has had it with her Puddin’, a.k.a. The Joker, and is ready to end their relationship for good because she’s tired of being taken for granted. This presents a major problem for Harley, though, because without the fear that Joker strikes in her enemies as protection, a whole host of people she has wronged are about to come calling. Among these are crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) a.k.a. Black Mask and Gotham City PD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). Montoya is a cop who has been passed over despite her accomplishments in police work while her male co-workers take the credit and advance ahead of her. To her, bringing in Harley is part of a bigger case she’s been chasing, and this woman takes law and order seriously. Sionis is just another rich, eccentric, nasty, evil underlord, flanked by his loyal servant/muscle Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), who wants to own everything and everyone in town, Harley included.
The overall script is honestly pretty silly and all over the place. In less than two hours it tries to focus on Harley’s life of independence, Renee’s frustration with lack of support from the police chief, and Sionis chasing down a diamond that has been inadvertently stolen by a young orphan street thief named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), as well as introducing us to the superheroines Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) a.k.a. Black Canary and Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a.k.a. The Huntress. It’s in these backstories where the film falters most, as its structure takes the approach of using flashbacks frequently to tell us who these people are once we’ve already been introduced to them. The same thing happens a couple of times with Harley and in every single instance, it robs the film of precious momentum. It also should be noted that while this film is called “Birds of Prey”, this is really the Harley Quinn show, and there is much, much less attention given to the other characters for most of its running time. That’s okay, though, because Robbie’s performance as Harley is as nuanced as ever, really outpacing the rest of the cast, and she does a great job of taking the character through new emotional ranges while never ceasing to provide the clever, hilarious dialogue and unpredictable decisionmaking we expect. If there is an MVP among the supporting cast, it’s definitely McGregor. The veteran actor is clearly enjoying himself and having a blast going full comic book with his performance. It works great in the context of the film, although if he’s supposed to be more powerful or scary as his alter ego Black Mask, that was not conveyed well at all and rendered any time his supervillain identity was used a pretty big letdown.
Director Cathy Yan reached out to Chad Stahelski, director of the “John Wick” series and founder of the renowned stunt work studio 87Eleven, to help with vision for the film’s action scenes, and it definitely shows. The action choreography is awesome and shot beautifully by acclaimed cinematographer Matthew Libatique. The color palette being mostly muted with the exception of big, bold splashes makes the film visually striking. It always looks great, and seeing it in IMAX was a treat. The soundtrack kicks major ass and like the frequent kinetic action, it is almost always on. This is a rock and roll concert of a comic book film that is unlike any you’ve ever seen, but that does remind in many ways of movies that came before like “Tank Girl”.
“Birds of Prey” is not shy about its empowerment message and all of the characters here have suffered abuse of some kind by men. These women are all about taking their lives into their own hands and making their own way, a strong and positive thought. It’s fun to see a film get to go wild with his idea and serve as a catharsis for many women in audiences who will likely relate to what those on-screen have gone through. I did, however, find the film’s lack of balance to bring it down just a notch. There is not one single male character in the film who isn’t in opposition or causing harm to the ladies in some way (be it physical, emotional, or even just a small act of betrayal). Not one. It paints an unrealistically cruel world in which every male is a villain and that is going to be tough for some viewers to watch. For those willing to reflect on how that makes them feel and why, I think there can be value, but on the surface, it was a choice that somewhat lessens the ability for the movie’s message to translate into real life.
Despite some nitpicks and its big structural flaw, “Birds of Prey” is an incredibly funny and exciting film to watch in the vein of Marvel’s fourth-wall-breaking “Deadpool” series. It serves as yet another unique entry into the DC comic book universe that provides a stylistic experience and delivers its story from a perspective that we haven’t seen before. There may not be a ton of depth worth mining in this ultra-violent (yet somehow not super gory) comedic affair, but “Birds of Prey” is one helluva badass female-led blockbuster that is a great addition to superhero cinema.
Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.