There wasn’t much good that came out of 2016’s “Suicide Squad”. The lone shining light was Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. She was a fun, energetic show-stealer and people instantly wanted more. But as “Suicide Squad” (thankfully) vanished from most of our memories, so did thoughts of a sequel. But apparently Robbie (who co-produces this film as well as stars) never gave up on her character and now we get the product of her labors.
“Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is every bit as loud, brash and chaotic as its trailers teased. It’s clearly an attempt by DC Films/Warner Bros. to tap into the “Deadpool” audience. Much like its Marvel counterpart, “Birds of Prey” is an R-rated romp mixing action with comedy while dropping loads of violent potty-mouthed mayhem. Frankly that seems to be all you need to get some people onboard.
“Birds of Prey” is considered the eighth film in the seemingly rudderless DC Extended Universe. The thought of rewatching “Suicide Squad” to prepare for this film was too depressing (thankfully there’s Wikipedia).￼ Turns out I didn’t need to. Smartly, director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson steer clear of the previous film aside from tossing in an Easter egg or two. The only carryover is the Joker who is never seen but mentioned numerous times.
Storywise, all you need to know is this: Harley Quinn (Robbie) has been kicked to the curb by her once beloved Joker. It gets out that she is no longer under Mr. J’s protection so all of the criminals she has wronged in the past make her a target. High on the list of those who want her dead is manic nightclub owner and mob boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). He’s also known as Black Mask, a great Batman rogue who the movie turns into a ham rather than a menacing villain.
The one thing Roman wants more than Harley’s head is a priceless diamond snatched by a young pickpocket named Cassandra Crain (Ella Jay Basco). Harley agrees to retrieve the diamond in exchange for Roman sparing her life. But there are other characters in the mix including Montoya (Rosie Perez), an underappreciated Gotham police detective, a vigilante named Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who targets mobsters with her crossbow, and a nightclub singer called Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who possesses an untapped superpower.
And that’s really all there is to the surprisingly bare-bones story. We do get a lot of Tarantino-inspired time jumps and backstory flashbacks coated in non-stop narration. They’re more style than substance and do more to mask the paper-thin plot than add meaningful depth. With her “Bumblebee” script Hodson showed that she can jump into the franchise space and energize it with a smart, fresh perspective. With “Birds of Prey” she seems to be mimicking a formula rather than offering an original take. And the characters suffer as well. Huntress is uneven, Montoya is bland, Cassandra is forgettable, Sionis is one-note. The one I enjoyed most was Canary.
Most disappointing is Harley who is a shell of a main character. She’s still a hellion. She has the attitude. She has the quirky, off-kilter personality. But what is her aim? What does she want? The movie’s title tells us “Emancipation“, but it’s so vaguely portrayed in the movie itself. So that leaves Robbie clinging to the showy external things (which she does really well), doing everything she can to make the character something other than one-dimensional.￼ It’s a valiant effort but she can only do so much when given so little.
But at least we have the action, right? Well sort of. Occasionally it’s simply too much to swallow. Take the scene where Harley tears through what must be the most inept police station in cinema history with a beanbag glitter gun. It’s pretty ridiculous. The scene ends on a better note with Harley showing off her skills with a baseball bat and Yan showing off her eye for stylish, intensely choreographed fight scenes. There is also a terrific sequence near the end when all of the film’s moving parts finally come together.
As a general defender of the DCEU I really wish “Birds of Prey” wasn’t such a mess. In many ways it should be commended as progress. It’s a female-led action-comedy directed by a woman, written by a woman, and essentially about getting on in life without a man. Together those things are an overdue breath of fresh air, but they don’t automatically make for a good movie. Here too much time is spent chasing a hard R rating and too much effort is put into channeling its anarchic style. It’s good for short attention spans and those just there for the bombast. But for the rest of us, Robbie’s hard work can’t save the film or make it the statement of empowerment that it could have been.
VERDICT – 2 STARS