Birds of Prey is the story of the former Harleen Quinzell, now known as Harley Quinn (energetically, and fairly entertainingly played by the lovely Margot Robbie… more on the performance as we go deeper), a former psychiatrist who embarked on a life of crime after falling in love with her most famous patient, the legendary Joker (a warning to all professionals to not blur boundaries with clients). As told in a cutely animated intro sequence, they’ve broken up, Harley is out on the streets and in between bouts of drinking, screaming and fighting, she gets revenge on her beau in a most fiery special effects showcase. This sets off a chain of events that puts all of our pieces on the board: an investigation by a seasoned cop tired of being overlooked, a connection to the shadowy underworld ruled by an unhinged crime boss, the sultry lounge singer ready to double-cross him and a deadly assassin hell-bent on revenge. Forget any connection to comic books, this has the makings of a good noir regardless of the source material. What a shame then, that this bird never gets off the ground.
Fingers can be pointed in several directions, but I think at its most basic level, the problem is with the source material itself. Harley Quinn really isn’t that interesting of a character. She has always been defined by her connection to, and relationship with, the Joker, a more well-established figure in comic lore (seen any movies about him recently?). Even though the whole theme of the film is her attempt to break away from that sense of being defined by someone else, the screenplay ultimately doesn’t give her enough to do, and Robbie, despite giving it her all, can only wring so much out the character’s established and defining traits: a weird accent and word choice that feels like it comes out of 40’s era animation. Maybe good for some TV episodes, but grating in a two-hour feature film.
The way this flawed character’s story is told is another severe handicap. As indicated, all the material for a good little noir are there, but they just aren’t utilized effectively. The screenplay is a murky mess. The first 30 minutes go heavy on a chipper voice-over by Robbie that help to ground the tone, but as the movie progresses it starts to seem more and more an attempt to fill in narrative gaps that the screenplay forgot about. Shifts in time and place are jarringly explained away with some jokes in this fashion, but it feels like a cover for bad editing. I wasn’t quite sure of too many plot nuances after the main event was set in motion.
I guess it’s basically this: the narcissistic criminal boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor clearly having fun, though the campy character leans a little too much on the toxic trope of feminine characteristics in men being perceived as villainous) is expecting the shipment of a diamond that will somehow be the key to more money and power, jaded cop Renee Montoya (great to see Rosie Perez, though it feels like she walked in from a different movie) gets wise to the situation because she’s being informed by Roman’s club chanteuse who goes by the name of Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett Bell, who gets some great action scenes). I must admit I can only throw up my hands in defeat before I can explain how Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress ties into it all, but uh, she looks cool and has an attitude.
None of the action matters if we can’t care about the ultimate outcome, and sadly I found it repetitious. Harley kicking the snot out of people to a classic rock soundtrack is admittedly pretty cool the first two or three times, but eventually I found myself just getting bored; the kiss of death for an action movie. Admittedly, I have this problem with most comic book films. They become a sensory overload. So much is happening that my eyes glaze over, I can’t even parse what’s happening on the screen. The final third of the film just numbed my brain.
I have to say something about the tonal shifts in the film. DC was wise to allow a female director (Cathy Yan, whose previous work I am unfamiliar with) to helm a female centric story. It’s certainly better in that regard than its predecessor, 2016’s Suicide Squad, proverbial among my friends as the nadir of this type of film, and certainly not a piece of feminist cinema if the number of shots focused on Robbie’s rear-end were any indication. Birds of Prey is superior to that, but It feels very jarring to me for a movie to have silly bodily function jokes at one moment, and some disturbing shots of near assault of women in another. The more serious comic book movie template has of course been set recently by Todd Phillips’ Joker, which is much more tonally consistent than this film.
But hey, all deconstruction aside, the merits of this type of film rise or fall on how entertaining it was. Sadly, for me, not very. All the cool stunts, clever directorial flourishes and classic rock on the soundtrack couldn’t hide the fact that there was no core, no heart to this movie. All style and not a lot of substance, it was an empty experience, emptier than the midweek matinee theater as I walked out.
One and a Half Stars.
~Fr. Michael Carter