Birds of Prey Review: A Fun, Violent, Uneven Adventure

Although the next DC Comics movie coming to the big screen maintains an isolated nature by comparison to the earlier films in this franchise, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) manages to serve as an impressive ensemble adventure with all of the characters, save for one of them, being brand new to the big screen. Operating without reliance on ties to other films benefits the girl gang's film, telling a story with no strings or restrictions attached (that applies to violence and language, thanks to an R rating, as well), is something the film capitalizes on quite well. On the heels of Aquaman, Shazam!, and Wonder Woman dropping in their own isolated pockets of the big-screen world, Birds of Prey is another entertaining and bold adventure.

Margot Robbie clocks in again as Harley Quinn, the centerpiece of the film, despite her comrades getting top billing in the first three words of the title. Robbie, for the most part, is better than ever in the part. An R rating allows the Australian actress to really hit a new stride as her crazy attitude is ever-present and a new fourth-wall breaking style a la Deadpool helps tell the story. In fact, there are striking resemblances to Deadpool, especially throughout the film's first act. However, the first act of Birds is unquestionably the weakest, as the often cartoon-ish Harley is humanized in the form of heartbreak, resulting in a sluggish batch of exposition to free her of the constraints of the Joker and Suicide Squad.

Birds offers up a few epic action sequences which seem to have benefited tremendously from the involvement of Chad Stahelski. Suddenly, Robbie's Harley Quinn is slinging a baseball bat on pure adrenaline from a huff of cocaine. The sequence seems as though it were pulled straight from a juiced up John Wick movie and Birds of Prey becomes better for the enhanced beats, and the same can be said for the suddenly bad-ass-in-new-ways Harley.

Of course, like many films in the genre, there are moments of questioning how certain things make any sense like, "Why didn't any of those guys with all the guns do anything this whole time?" when the Birds are fighting what seems like an army of unarmed individuals. Those movie tropes are forgivable, especially when women are recognized with quips like, "Need a hair tie?" in the middle of a fight sequence.

Robbie's work aside, the supporting cast shines, starting with Jurnee Smollett-Bell who clocks in as Dinah Lance, known to comic fans as Black Canary. While her power set is unfortunately withheld through most of the movie, it's her appearances and those of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Rosie Perez as Huntress and Renee Montoya, respectively, that really get the movie going. The first act's exposition slog comes full circle about a third into the film, which is where the other story threads start to get deeper and eventually intertwine. Director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson do a tremendous job of building an entertaining dynamic between Harley, Huntress, Canary, and Montoy.

The reason the group is coming together, as it turns out, is the best part of the film. Ewan McGregor plays Roman Sionis, a misogynistic idiot who is a great joy to despise. McGregor is tremendously entertaining in the role, never missing a beat of enthusiasm as the menacing and unpredictable Black Mask character. The actor and director cook up truly menacing beats, some of which rely on the R rating and others simply show off McGregor’s acting range, including an intensely violent opening sequence for the movie. It doesn’t feel like a stretch, by any means, to call McGregor’s Black Mask the best and most entertaining DC villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker, though he doesn’t quite reach that peak.

While Birds of Prey is wise to distance itself from Harley Quinn's previous appearance in Suicide Squad, it does not entirely dismiss the character's big-screen canon. It's a bittersweet move by the script, as acknowledging the past feels like a bit of a payoff for fans familiar with her history. Simultaneously, it would be fun to dig a bit deeper into the connections if they are going to be acknowledged at all, but the movie manages to weave between canonical restraints without suffering from them.

The next step for DC films shows that the comic brand has an arsenal of characters that are tremendously interesting and should be explored further, but it does leave a lot of meat on the bone by focusing so heavily on the surefire box office draw that is Harley Quinn. The film starts off slowly and finds its stride in the second act, with McGregor’s villain being the entertaining standout while underutilizing some of its other more interesting characters. Birds of Prey is a good movie bogged down by a sluggish start. It is entertaining and a great starting point for some new characters on the big screen.

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Rating: 3 out of 5

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) lands in theaters on February 7th.