Birds of Prey (Or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a rare movie that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. Putting those goals into words is a bit of a wild prospect, but that’s kind of the point. This movie puts down into a tangible form something delightful, weird, and altogether unique.
It does this by fully embracing the comic book ethos in a way no other movie has done before. There’s a sort of deranged, ruthless commitment to indulging in the things it wants to indulge in and letting the problem of making sense fall to your ability to let go. It’s a hugely refreshing take after years of drowning in the steadfast groundedness of the MCU (and the hilariously dour DCEU trying to chase that).
Granted, movies have already captured certain aspects of the comic medium before. Deadpool revels in the character’s trademark ability to play within the absurdity of the macabre. Various others have nailed the visual aesthetic of it all like with Watchmen and Kick-Ass. But few others have tapped into the way holding those pages and parsing through panels forces a sort of cartoonish detachment from our reality.
The movie sets the tone immediately by blasting you with an impossible universe and an inscrutable time. Following the events of Suicide Squad, we see Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) break up with the Joker in the most bombastic of fashion. This seems like an incredibly personal matter, but as it turns out, the blanket fear the clown prince engendered in the criminal underworld was protecting Harley from everyone wanting to kill her, so now it’s an everyone matter. Turns out she can rub folks the wrong way. Who knew?
And though we know this is a modern world with cellphones and whatnot, it feels entirely otherworldly. Part of it is the tremendous production design fully displacing you. The clothing is a nightmarish yet pleasing mishmash of the 90s, 00s, and present trends. This seemingly wholly fabricated interpretation of Gotham City doesn’t even have the usual landmarks to center you in a New York-adjacent mindset. And combine that with a hallucinogenic color palette and you have a wonderful bit of misdirection.
Plus there’s Robbie’s entire portrayal of the character. This Harley has all the unhinged charm of the 2016 debut version but with this new undercurrent of a thoroughly broken heart. And it’s not just the breakup with the Joker; she’s always been disillusioned with the world. And somehow Robbie’s performance informs us that Harley’s hard swings from happy to manic to categorically downtrodden all stems from this damaged backstory. (It’s very I, Tonya in that way.)
Because she’s not broken. No, the things she does may be a bit wild, but she’s not a not functioning human. Here we get a complete display of her ability to both work within and appreciate the happy-go-lucky nature of comic book characters enjoy the odd deus ex machina now and again and her unbelievable prowess to get herself out of jams with her raw talents. This partly what I mean about that comic book ethos. Seeing her get into and against insurmountable odds only to flip and kick and smash her way out with a demented glee and no concern for explaining how or why is just a joy to behold.
From a weapon that fires rounds of potent confetti and on-brand clouds of smoke to her trademark mallet, this movie has us edging closer and closer to the woodchipper with a smile on our face. There’s a sequence that can only be described as bat kata. There’s a chase that turns Harley’s favorite hobby into a threat. And the entire climax seems purposefully built to maximize shenanigans.
The action, while over the top, still manages to be entirely digestible. It delivers some truly joyous moments with some incredible shot composition and clarity. It pulls in some popular moves you’ve probably seen before (e.g., some knee slides into leg sweeps and the ever-visceral full-body contortion via head slam into the ground) but with some truly bold wide shots you’d normally only get with, say, a Hong Kong action film. They stand in stark contrast to how you’ve previously seen these maneuvers, which is to say quick, closeup, and with jagged editing. It’s clear these actors put in the work to do these stunts.
And that each character only seems glad to be in the way of all of this is endearing, each one seemingly living in their own genre flick. The swirling vortex of intent and MacGuffins ropes in a beleaguered Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) trying to make a case against the deadly Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) who is employing Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) and Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to find a missing diamond that’s been stolen by Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) but once belonging to revenge-seeking Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And Harley somehow finds herself smack-dab in the middle of it all.
Perez, especially, brings a special kind of hardboiled Brooklyn detective bent to Montoya. It’s the sort of serious but aware commitment that makes a straight edge character work in an oddball world like this one. Just enough camp to keep a hold on her place amongst the more comic book-inclined. Whereas McGregor is fully loosed to be a gross, slimy, conniving, controlling, entitled trash bag and it’s terrific. He plays garbage as if he’s been doing it all his life and not charming the pants off of everybody near him.
And special shoutout to Winstead’s Huntress, who is stuck in a Lady Snowblood– or Kill Bill-like revenge story but doesn’t particularly grasp what that entails other than killing. It’s a special kind of weird that I can’t get enough of.
Birds of Prey doesn’t do everything. Its plot is thin and the emotional appeal is built to be just enough to care the requisite amount, but that doesn’t matter. Consider it the patter to a great magic trick—misdirection, really. Free from the shackles of saving the world from evil or the pressure of being a women-led film (though obviously women-led) as a statement about women, it wants you to look one way while it’s going another. Then, before you know it, you’re watching one of the most fun movies of the year.
Final Score: 8 out of 10