Margot Robbie’s depiction of the extremely popular DC comic book character Harley Quinn has been the shining star in not one, but now TWO sloppy messes meant to be major blockbusters for Warner Bros. One thing can be said for ‘Birds of Prey’, the movie unapologetically goes for it. Unfortunately for fans and audiences, little of it works in any kind of coherent way.
It starts off interestingly enough, with a narrated cartoon depiction of Harleen’s origin and subsequent breakup with the Joker (kudos to the studio for opting to keep Jared Leto away). The movie then introduces a convoluted story told out of order, in what unfortunately only reminds audiences of another R-rated, wisecracking comic book character. The sequence is almost exactly like the flashback first half of ‘Deadpool’, but ten times more head-spinningly confusing. Not only does the movie have to set up Harley as its ostensible star, it also has to introduce a number of side characters who make up the titular ‘Birds’, as well as Ewan McGregor’s wildly maddening villain AND his unhinged sidekick played by Chris Messina. In a stunningly mind-numbing ’90s-style comic book movie reinterpretation, almost every character with a familiar name from the comics is presented in totally unfamiliar ways.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of ‘Birds of Prey’ is its complete flummoxing of the dynamics between its female-comprised, loosely knit ‘team’. First on the docket is Rosie Perez’s Renée Montoya, who perhaps most closely resembles her 2D counterpart as a dogged detective, constantly upstaged by her cartoonish male colleagues. In one of the funniest bits in the movie, she speaks in eternal cop movie cliches, but this choice ironically also keeps her from being taken seriously as a real character as she has been since her introduction in the comics. Then there’s Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer in McGregor’s club, who inexplicably can shatter glass with her voice and serves the heavy for no discernible reason beyond moving the plot forward. Of particular note, she provides the connection that drives the absurd (and boring) narrative – her pick-pocket neighbor, and human macguffin, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco in a role named for the alter ego of the second Batgirl, none of which resonates in this film nor sets up any kind of future development) manages to steal and ingest a diamond encrypted with . . . , oh forget it. Finally there is the always welcome Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a vengeance-driven vigilante killer with loose ties to the criminals, who eventually crosses paths with all the various figures in the movie. That she embodies the Batman-adjacent figure Huntress, feels like a complete afterthought, and her whole violent, tragic backstory is just treated as a big joke, that while sometimes funny, also robs the film of any kind of serious empathy.
Maybe it makes sense for a movie that centers on a character like Harley Quinn to have a scattershot, silly, ultraviolet tone, but due to its presentation, it feels completely disjointed. For every solid bit about Harley’s affection for egg sandwiches, and every bravura action sequence (many of which were designed by famed ‘John Wick’ director, Chad Stahelski) where she just reeks wondrous havoc on the glaring lascivious henchmen that she also has wronged, there’s scene after scene of nonsensical horrifying behavior and scuzzy drudgery. Whatever McGregor and Messina are doing as established Batman villains Black Mask and Victor Zsasz, none of it really works. It’s truly unfortunate that Robbie can’t save these movies that she stars in, and produces, as at this point it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in this iconic role. It’s very possible that director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christian Hodson may be the right creatives to emancipate Harley, as the vision they establish is a unique one, but it’s truly confounding why they and DC/WB didn’t just give her the film’s title, strip out all the extraneous nonsense, provide her some worthy sparring partners, and let her do her thing . . .
Directed By: Cathy Yan
Written By: Christina Hodson
Running Time: 109 min.
* 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- C-