Saturday, July 4, 2020

Movie Review: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

I was originally going to include this in one of those "catching up" posts, but when I finished I looked at what I'd written, and realized it was basically a full-length review. On top of that, this hasn't really been out that long, and what even is is a "new movie" anymore? So, in the off chance anyone's curious, here are my thoughts on Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.

I'm going to need to look at this movie from a number of different points of view. First and most importantly, as a movie in its own right, divorced from its source material, this thing is pretty damn awesome. Or at least the first half is - around the halfway point, it loses some momentum and becomes merely awesome. I know that's harsh, but I've got to be honest here.

To be clear, I'm approaching this as an action/comedy hybrid, and in that context, "pretty damn awesome" doesn't even cover it. The fight scenes in Birds of Prey and the Fant.... The fight scenes in Birds of Prey are some of the best we've seen in years. Forget Deadpool: as much as I love those movies, neither installment has a single fight sequence that can hold a candle to what's in Birds of Prey. This is inventive and energetic in a way that's reminiscent of Steven Chow or Edgar Wright. Cathy Yan knocks it out of the park, and she does so with an over-sized mallet.

The comedy is solid, even when the kicking stops, and the movie's over-the-top characters are engaging. Like I said before, the movie loses steam around the point it coalesces into a coherent narrative and rushes to a climax, but it's still entertaining. It's also worth noting some character details feel tacked on - Black Canary's powers being a prime example. The nerd in me likes that they come up, but if we're looking at this as a self-contained work, they feel wedged in and unearned.

Speaking of which...

I said at the start I'd need to look at this from more than one perspective. So let's lose the facade of objectivity and talk nerd stuff. How is this as an adaptation?

Okay, I'm going to have to subdivide further because as a comic book movie, this is amazing. The use of color combined with the gorgeously stylized action make this one of the most intriguing translations of the comic book genre we've ever gotten. So... I guess that's another point for Birds of Prey.

Here's a third: as a Harley Quinn movie, this is all kinds of awesome. Margot Robbie was already great in Suicide Squad, which is pretty remarkable given how bad that movie was (I liked it, but I'm not delusional). Here, in the hands of a talented creative team, she's really able to shine, and she does so in ways that honor the character's history.

But - and we're finally at the but - this is also ostensibly a Birds of Prey movie, and...

I'm sorry, but it really isn't. The characters in this movie are good, but they're not the Birds of Prey, nor are they given anywhere near enough screen time to feel like anything more than sidekicks. Given how good the comics are, that's a bit of a let-down. Using the names "Cassandra Cain" or "Black Canary" without really using the characters bugs me. They turned one of the most bad-ass martial artists in the DC Universe into a pick-pocket, when they could have just made up a new character or... hell, the DCU isn't short on pick-pockets. This is one of those cases where the people who get the reference are the least likely to appreciate it, so why use the name?

Yeah, there is a part of me that agrees with the detractors, at least on that point. I don't feel as bad dinging this movie over dorky trivia, because the movie kind of asks for it by treating the Canary Cry as a twist, then doesn't even explain it to the non-nerds. You don't need to make a comic-accurate film, but the way this cherry-picks which lore to use and which to drop is distracting, whether you're a geek or not. It's the one aspect of the finished product I'd call sloppy.

Otherwise, this thing's great. The style is a world apart from anything that's been done recently, and it's a joy to experience. Sure, I wish they'd stayed a little more faithful to the source material, and I wish the last half had been given space to breathe, but make no mistake: this is easily one of the best movies in the franchise, along with Wonder Woman and Shazam. And more importantly, there's really nothing else like this.