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Review: Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

February 7, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) – the delightfully deranged alter ego of psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel who turned to crime after falling in love with her patient, the Joker – was undoubtedly the breakout star of Suicide Squad, and the best part of that otherwise disappointing movie.

Now the comic book anti-heroine gets her own movie in Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), a colourful and hyper-stylized joy ride that moves fast and is a lot of fun to watch, offering the perfect playground for Robbie to really let loose in the role. It’s a blast to watch.

It all starts with a lost breakfast sandwich. Well, I guess I should back up a bit and say that the film actually starts with Harley relaying to us that she has just broken up with the Joker (Jared Leto doesn’t appear here, but it’s supposed to be his iteration of the character from Suicide Squad), which leads her to make the drunken decision to blow up ACE chemicals, setting in motion a strange turn of events that causes her to be chased by a Gotham City detective, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), leading to the loss of said sandwich.

If that sounds sort of convoluted, it gets even better, with a wild plot involving a lost diamond worth a fortune that is being sought by sadistic night club owner Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his right hand man Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). The diamond ends up in the hands of teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who becomes an unlikely accomplice to Harley Quinn. Also in the mix are Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a vigilante who gets dubbed the “crossbow killer” due to her choice of weapon, but whose preferred superhero moniker is Huntress; and Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who sings at Roman’s night club and has a “voice that can kill,” earning her the name Black Canary.

Directed with style to spare by Cathy Yan, and produced by Robbie, Birds of Prey is the movie that many of us wished Suicide Squad had been. It’s an R-rated action comedy featuring fight scenes that are equal parts playful and thrilling, accompanied by great needle drops. The film’s action sequences are brilliantly choreographed to music and heightened by Matthew Libatique’s poppy cinematography, employing long takes and spinning camera moves to up the swirling, madcap feel of the movie. The film in some ways has the spirit of a musical or music video, including a song and dance dream sequence in which Robbie seemingly channels Lady Gaga.

The screenplay by Christina Hodson, who also wrote the surprisingly good Transformers spinoff Bumblebee, employs a clever narrative structure that tells the story out of order, with Harley Quinn acting as narrator. She offers constant, knowing voiceover, frequently rewinding to show us relevant flashbacks. The film also features stylized graphics, including title cards to help us keep track of the characters, as well as their motivations and connections to Quinn. This gives the film a very playful comic book feel, which fits the character quite well.

There are some great moments in the film when the women at the centre of the story team up, forming the titular Birds of Prey, and all of the actors fit their roles well. But this really is Harley Quinn’s show, and how the hell can it not be? At the centre of it all is Robbie, who appears here at her most unhinged and continues to show her impressive range as an actor. Hiding behind white makeup, colourful pigtails and over the top outfits, she absolutely knocks this role out of the park, delivering a gleefully crazy performance that we just can’t stop watching.

The film doesn’t really concern itself with social messages or sentimentality. It sets out simply to have fun, and does a bang up job of it. It’s often really funny too, bolstered by an irreverent and appropriately anarchic sense of humour. In some ways this is DC’s answer to Deadpool, offering further proof that Warner Bros. has finally turned this franchise around. I would even go as far as to say that Birds of Prey is up there with Shazam! and Wonder Woman as one of the best films yet in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU).

Moving at a breakneck pace – the film clocks in under two hours at 109 minutes – Birds of Prey is the gonzo, deranged, candy-coloured and ultra violent action comedy that Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn deserves. Put simply, this is a confetti cannon explosion of a movie that hits like a shotgun blast of glitter, and I had a really good time watching it.

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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