By Douglas Laman
Special to the Anna-Melissa Tribune
Gosh, it’s always tough to grapple with a breakup. But it’s especially difficult when the spouse you’re breaking up with is The Joker. That’s the situation Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) finds herself in during “Bird of Prey,” now that the Clown Prince of Crime has dumped her, presumably to spend more time focusing on stair dancing. Harley’s spent so much of the past few years dedicating herself exclusively to her puddin’ that she’s never been able to establish herself as her own independent person. Figuring out who she is apart from The Joker will be difficult now that tons of Gotham gangsters, no longer worried about incurring the wrath of Mr. J, are out to settle some scores with Harley, with one such gangster bring Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
Harley’s tale eventually intersects with the ongoing sagas of four other women in Gotham City, specifically singer/driver Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), Gotham City Police Department detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and a mysterious lady armed with a crossbow (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). “Birds of Prey” interweaves all these assorted characters through non-linear digressions. Screenwriter Christina Hodson employs Harley Quinn as a wacky narrator who keeps taking the viewer back and forth across time to properly explain who everyone is and what their motivations are.
“Birds of Prey” deserves props for utilizing a storytelling approach that owes more to Kuzco in “The Emperor’s New Groove” than the story structure of, say, “Suicide Squad” but the execution does leave something to be desired. The stop-start nature of the plot has its amusing moments, but too often undercuts the dramatic momentum. Another aspect of the script - Harley’s narration - similarly has a mixed rate of success. While it yields its fair share of successful jokes, it’s sometimes used to accentuate onscreen actions (chiefly a scene where Renee Montoya’s conflict with her boss reaches a head) that really could have been communicated just fine with onscreen visuals. Sometimes “Birds of Prey” hits the good version of beating you over the head with something, but then the on-the-nose narration has a habit of hitting the bad version of that element.
On the other more-positive hand, one of the best parts of Hodson’s writing is how well it works at creating distinct personalities for the five lead characters. They’re all distinctly rendered with outsized personalities that prove to be delightful to watch interact with one another, particularly in regard to their rapport with such a firecracker like Harley Quinn. All the lead characters are really enjoyable, but I especially adored Winstead’s assassin character who’s capable of firing away arrows into the throats of evildoers, but who also tends to be socially awkward. That’s a juxtaposition “Birds of Prey” uses for both memorable comedy and some equally entertaining action as well as a microcosm of one of the absolute best parts of the entire project.
Specifically, the personality of Huntress represents how “Birds of Prey” isn’t afraid to go big rather than go home. This is a movie bursting with its own unique flavor of anarchic energy that’s like a mixture of a Guy Ritchie movie and a particularly hyperactive Bugs Bunny cartoon. Some movies might choose between bright colors and violence, but “Birds of Prey” decides to drench the screen in bright color and confetti all while dabbling in carnage that veers from being reminiscent of John Wick to being reminiscent of what you’d see in your average Hostel film. It all makes for a blast of a time, especially since “Birds of Prey” comes up with some truly impressive action set pieces for Harley and the other lead characters to inhabit.
There’s a welcome sense of variety to the backdrops in “Birds of Prey,” under the superb direction of filmmaker Cathy Yan. The film’s visual sensibilities are just as unexpected as the behavior of its protagonist. Did you ever think you’d see a hand-to-hand tussle with all the graceful movements of water ballet set in a police station? What about a duel between the five lead characters and physical manifestations of toxic masculinity set within a circus seemingly designed by F.W. Murnau? The sets in “Birds of Prey” truly are remarkable to soak in, riddled with color and finer details (Harley’s apartment is rife with amusing sight gags). Plus, it’s awesome how the sets are less concerned with adhering to gritty realism than they are with serving as physical extensions of the mindset of Harley Quinn.
“Birds of Prey” manages to effectively explore its lead characters’ mindsets as well as the concept of how women endure systemically ingrained misogyny. It also manages to juggle that weighty material all while having a sense of deliriously fun pandemonium. Such enjoyable chaos manifests in, among other areas, a hysterical running gag involving a delicious-looking breakfast sandwich and an extended sequence where Harley Quinn beats up dudes with a baseball bat while rolling around on roller skates. Much like last year’s DC Comics movie “Shazam,” “Birds of Prey” is surprisingly thoughtful, not afraid to get endearingly weird and also a total blast to watch. Any movie like “Birds of Prey,” which ends with a needle-drop of Kesha’s “Woman,” gets a hearty recommendation from me.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends … and watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website landofthenerds.blogspot.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.