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MOVIE REVIEW: Escapist Fantasy Ass-Kicking in Birds of Prey

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, center) is the center of the new comic book universe action movie Birds of Prey (DC Films/Warner Brothers).

The voluminously titled Birds of Prey: The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is the antithesis of the recent Joker. Both are based on DC Comics properties and were created by DC Films, but Birds of Prey is offbeat and Joker is darkly serious. Birds of Prey is part of the DC Cinematic Universe (and, hence, something of a sequel to Suicide Squad) and Joker is a standalone film. Both are escapist of a sort, but Birds of Prey is fun and Joker is something of a tragedy.

While much of the marketing for Birds of Prey suggested a girl-squad teamup, this is really an antiheroine-centered star vehicle for the character of Harley Quinn, deliciously played by Margot Robbie. The supporting cast of women are only swept into Harley’s orbit in the latter stages of the film, rather like if The Magnificent Seven had recruited the others for the final act, rather than as part of the opening exposition. This isn’t bad, per se – Robbie’s thrilling performance captures your attention and holds it – but it does leave the rest of the ensemble more thinly characterized.

What this movie has in spades are visual flair, one-liners, a colorful lead, and an appropriately glowering badder bad guy to get his butt kicked. Ewan McGregor puts in a truly scene-chewing performance as Roman “Black Mask” Sionis, the villain who the titular Birds of Prey gang up to take down. There is a plot about a stolen diamond and some threats against Harley’s lives, most of which is an excuse to setup cool-looking scenes. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s lens captures splash after splash of vivid color, minus some of the frenetic cutting and overly dark palette that dogged Suicide Squad.

Director Cathy Yan’s approach to this script emphasizes Harley Quinn’s flair, which (her being an anti-heroine) also involves things such as watching Harley shoot up a police station with nonlethal rounds. The immensely colorful sequence is one of the film’s most memorable, and you shouldn’t think overly much about the injuries that the police might have incurred during the affair. It’s one of many fast-paced sequences; there aren’t many slow moments in the film. Overall, it’s up in the air and off for a ride.

Unfairly or fairly, Joker offended many with its serious approach mixing mental illness and an in-universe call to rise up and revolt. Birds of Prey is far more violent, but probably won’t elicit nearly as much controversy. Whether or not that says something about our society is anyone’s guess, but Birds of Prey is tremendous fun. Just don’t take it too seriously.

Amy Donahue