Friday, February 7, 2020

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) - Review

After a tumultuous start, it appears that Warner Brothers and DC have righted the ship on their version of a connected universe. With multiple hits, either critically, financially, or both, under their belt, the newest comic adaptation may be the biggest test yet. Birds of Prey, a spin-off of the panned 2016 film Suicide Squad, is tasked with building on that while replacing the dark and drab vibe of that disaster with the bright, colorful, fun that should follow Harley Quinn. Fortunately, it absolutely succeeds in that mission.

It's open season on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) when her explosive breakup with the Joker puts a big fat target on her back. Unprotected and on the run, Quinn faces the wrath of narcissistic crime boss Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), and every other thug in the city. But things soon even out for Harley when she becomes unexpected allies with three deadly women -- Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary  (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).

Somewhere along the way, a person with some clout or pull at Warner Brothers figured out the secret to making crowd pleasing, fun blockbusters out of a comic book property. Since that point, the DC films have been enjoyable blockbusters, with a hint of heart and humor to go along with that. One of the biggest victims of the dark and dreary tone of the initial launch of a cinematic universe for the DC heroes was Suicide Squad. Varied opinions on that film aside, Birds of Prey is a vast improvement.

While Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn clearly has a new take on the world of Gotham, it doesn’t completely abandon some the visuals of its predecessor. Names still appear on the screen for each newly introduced character, each in a cheesy font associated with their name or abilities, but the actual introductions flow better in the story rather than someone literally reading them off the page. This is a world that actually feels vibrant and lively, a world that’s worth revisiting in the future.
Unfortunately, the film does still share some of the narrative clunkiness, mainly stemming from some odd structural choices in how it lays out the story it's attempting to tell. Some of these choices are tied to Harley Quinn, played excellently again by Margot Robbie, being an unreliable narrator, while others are just a little too bizarre to function the way they’re meant to. However, the film does eventually find its stride, particularly after introducing the main players of the film, and really starts to connect by the time the third act rolls around.

By far the biggest positive of the film is the introduction to a bevy of new characters worthy of exploration down the road. The titular team of women, comprised of Winstead, Smollett-Bell, and Perez, are individually interesting sure, but when they all finally come together, their chemistry is remarkable. Not to mention all three are extremely well-suited to the roles they’ve been given. Of course, Robbie has the character down by now, and anything with her playing Quinn is a treat by now. The highlight of this film, however, may just be Ewan McGregor as the devious Roman Sionis. McGregor is having a blast in this role, the over the top villain is something he rarely gets to play, and every second he is on screen, the film gets a little bit better because of him.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is another step in the right direction for the still young DC Extended Universe. With the passion of Margot Robbie for the characters and the hiring of talented, creative people like Cathy Yan to helm them, Warner Brothers might just be on to something if they maintain this trajectory for the foreseeable future. If they do, count me in as on board for whatever they want to try in this mixed up, crazy universe they’re creating. 

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