BIRDS OF PREY IMAX movie poster | ©2020 Warner Bros.

BIRDS OF PREY IMAX movie poster | ©2020 Warner Bros.

Rating: R
Stars: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Chris Messina
Writer: Christina Hodson
Director: Cathy Yan
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Release Date: February 7, 2020

A movie about Batman villainess/Joker paramour Harley Quinn doesn’t exactly sound like a blast. Harley is sometimes depicted as a creative sadist and sometimes as a completely dizzy engine of destruction, both devoted to the Joker and neither someone who seems like a good figure to build a movie around.

Well, surprise. BIRDS OF PREY has found the right balance for Harley (Margot Robbie, reprising the character following 2016’s SUICIDE SQUAD). Yes, she’s still bonkers and sometimes has major ADHD issues, but director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hudson, along with the game Robbie, have crafted a Harley who’s daffy but crafty, enraged but never petulant, more exuberant than maniacal. She favors a baseball bat rather than a gun. While Harley is a proud breaker of every law she can find, when she’s going up against non-evildoers, her weapons fire beanbags and confetti rather than bullets. Crucially, Harley is not competitive with other women unless she’s actively fighting them, and she’s prone to outbursts of sincere admiration. BIRDS OF PREY has no problem passing the Bechdel test.

Harley is our narrator here, occasionally looking straight at the camera to make her point. She’s just broken up with “Mr. J,” and finds a big way to tell Gotham City that the affair is completely over. As Gotham City Police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) notes, Harley doesn’t seem to have thought this through. Without Joker (not seen here) as her protector, everyone in the underworld whom Harley has provoked at some point – and that does seem to be almost everyone – now feels free to target her.

Chief among the aggrieved is pretentious, easily offended Gotham crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Roman’s efforts to simultaneously kill Harley and get his hands on an enormous diamond propel the plot. Montoya has been doggedly pursuing Roman. Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and pickpocket orphan Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) all come into play as well.

The plot is something to hang the jokes and the action on, but it holds together surprisingly well. Any time we may get confused, Harley offers a line or two of clarification from her perspective. There is a feeling of delight in Robbie’s performance that is contagious, perhaps literally. McGregor appears to have caught it; he’s having a blast with every one of Roman’s turn-on-a-dime reactions. Winstead is absolutely in on the joke of the notion that her character is a flawless assassin who is bewildered by social cues, never overdoing it, and Bell sings like a canary and fights like a raptor. Basco has the tone down pat. It’s a pleasure to see Perez get to play it semi-straight as a focused cop who, as other characters observe, is straight out of an ‘80s movie.

BIRDS OF PREY movie poster | ©2020 Warner Bros.

BIRDS OF PREY movie poster | ©2020 Warner Bros.

The action is colorful and fast, but never slides outright into the supernatural, which suits the Bat-verse well. There is a fair amount of gore, mostly perpetrated by the bad guys, but enough to justify the R rating. (Those with delicate ears should know that the language is likewise what is known as strong.)

There is a little sense of meta here, but the fourth wall is never fully broken. The filmmakers understand the difference between depiction and inclusion, and land on the right side of it. They treat us as if we’re already in on the joke, and they like their characters. We are invited neither to hold in awe or feel contempt, but rather to have a good time.

Those familiar with the actual DC BIRDS OF PREY who wanted a movie truly tied into that franchise will have to wait; although some of the major characters appear here, this film is more Harley Quinn (not one of the Birds) and Company. However, for those who can embrace the spirit but not the letter of BIRDS OF PREY, the film provides the spectacle and joys of powerful women with different talents banding together to righteously and humorously kick butt.

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