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'Birds Of Prey' Is A Fun, Fast, Feathery Mess

Lunatic, Fringe: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) finds a whole new, non-suicidal squad in <em>Birds of Prey.</em>
Claudette Barius
Warner Bros.
Lunatic, Fringe: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) finds a whole new, non-suicidal squad in Birds of Prey.

The degree to which any given Marvel or DC/Warners movie manages to distinguish itself from the slew of punch-em-ups that have come before is a function of tone, more than anything else. The demands of the genre (innocents to protect, evil to punish, MacGuffins to procure, training to montage) are such that filmmakers are forced to innovate around the margins.

So it should come as no surprise that the plot of Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) feels like it's running along on some well-worn rails: Bad guy (Ewan McGregor) and his henchman (Chris Messina) want an object (a diamond that ... you know what never mind, not important) and are willing to murder an innocent (Ella Jay Basco) to get it; a rag-tag crew is forced to work together to keep that from happening and punish said guy, and said hench (along with a horde of day-players in riot gear), in the process.

The rag-tag crew in question sports some pretty ragged tags: There's just-dumped-by-the-Joker Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), cop-with-a-chip-on-her-shoulder Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), nightclub-singer-with-a-heart-of-gold Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and brooding-socially-awkward-vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Of course their personalities slot neatly into types — there's even a running gag about how Perez's character talks like a cop in an action movie (which is kind of cheating, let's agree) — but in a film as crowded and frenetic as this one, types are useful, if your actors are up to the task. Winstead gets the least screentime here, for example, but she manages to imbue her scenes with a quirkiness that's specific, not phoned-in — not standard-issue "Hollywood weird."

Screenwriter Christina Hodson and — especially — director Cathy Yan throw a lot of things at the screen, in an attempt to make Birds of Prey feel new: a 24-hour clock, flashbacks, an endless succession of pop music cues (seriously this movie's got more needle-drops than a porcupine mosh pit), well-choreographed and brutally bone-crunching fight scenes (the Foley artists must have gone through an acre's worth of celery) and a lead character who doesn't so much break the fourth wall as pulverize it into a pile of rubble and rebar.

The result, as you might imagine, is a wildly uneven, scattershot mess — but one that zips along so fast it never wears out its welcome. Robbie, who also produced the film, is clearly having a ball, and her sheer enthusiasm carries you over the many, many, many rough spots.

Suicide Squad, you'll remember — the film in which she debuted as Harley — was nothing but one long, glum, cynical, confusing, assembled-by-committee rough spot. A rough spot that functioned like a cinematic black hole somehow capable of swallowing up the charisma of both Robbie and Will Freaking Smith; from that doleful event horizon no light, nor heat, nor fun could escape.

What Birds of Prey has going for it that Suicide Squad did not, besides Robbie's indefatigable brio, is of course the fact that its butt-kicking lead characters are women — including women of color, one of whom's canonically queer — and the butts they proceed to kick with such verve and elan belong to men. The film makes hay of this simple inversion — both in a labored, hat-on-a-hat way (Harley compares the group's climactic last stand to a sleepover) and in more knowing, subtle flashes (one character helpfully tosses a hairband to her long-tressed teammate mid-fight).

Birds of Prey may be a manic circus, but it proves to be the best kind of circus — one without a clown. In her comics incarnation, Harley split with the Joker years ago, and a new Harley Quinn animated series begins pretty much where the film does — with Harley doing what she can to get over a relationship with a man who is, quite literally, toxic. Created in 1992 by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for Batman: The Animated Series to be the cheesecake Judy to the Joker's Punch — the one-note dynamic adopted by Suicide Squad so eagerly — Harley becomes vastly more interesting once she's on her own, in any medium.

The Gotham she lives in, in this movie at least, is also we haven't seen before. No one skulks on skyscraper rooftops or drives on rain-slick, neon-lit pavement. Much of the film's action take place during the day, on the surface streets of some grimy, sun-blasted outer borough. Even Gotham City, it would seem, has a Flatbush.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.