‘Birds of Prey’ explodes like a confetti cannon
In the comics world, DC has never quite really known what to do with Harley Quinn. First introduced in the much-lauded, groundbreaking “Batman: The Animated Series,” which ran from 1992-95, she debuted in the comics canon a year later.
Quinn was a psychologist who crossed paths with Joker in prison and immediately fell under his spell, pledging herself to him and his nefarious ways. From there, her story forks depending on the source. She teams with other Gotham City villains such as Catwoman and Poison Ivy in some tales, while other iterations have her becoming an anti-hero, leaving her abusive relationship with Joker and vowing to clean up crime. In film, she was a little of both as the leader of supervillain-crimefighters in DC’s live-action “Suicide Squad.”
So it is fitting that the film bearing her name, “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” explodes like a confetti cannon, spraying glitter and blasting color all over the place, but ultimately leaving a mess once the party is over.
Margot Robbie is front and center as Harley, reprising her role from “Suicide Squad,” but thankfully far from the ogling lens of director David Ayers’ dumpster fire of a film. In “Birds,” she’s just ended her relationship with Joker (who only appears in an animated credits crawl in the beginning, but his name is dropped throughout), and realizes her time with him has caused her to amass quite a few enemies.
At the top of the list is one Ronan Sionis aka the Black Mask (played by Ewan McGregor). This is the first of the film’s many problems. Despite his threatening villain name, he’s just not that interesting and is more of a fussy felon prone to hissy fits and seemingly germ-phobic. So when it comes to killings, he hands things over to his scarred, sadistic henchman Victor (played by Chris Messina). Both McGregor and Messina have demonstrated their dramatic skills, but “Birds” really has no clue what to do with them, and they are no more of a threat to Harley than a hangnail.
Meanwhile, “Birds” keeps viewers busy by introducing a number of very interesting underground anti-heroes, such as Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), as well as a put-upon police detective (played by Rosie Perez) frustrated by sexism in the force.
I have not even begun to get into plot that binds the “Birds” together. That is a completely different narrative taking up space in the film’s universe, becoming part of its bad habit of providing bloated expository scenes that hopscotch through time and kill any building tension for audiences. To their credit, filmmaker Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson may have meant to mimic the mind of Harley by structuring the film this way. But it does not translate well in execution.
“Birds of Prey” also proudly touted its R-rating, much like the comic-themed “Deadpool,” but aside from occasional F-bombs and a couple scenes of (really gross) non-comic violence, it never delves into the more adult-oriented topics it brings up and instead aims straight for the Hot Topic crowd. For example, “Deadpool” embraced its gore and took time to explore the emotional loss of the lead’s girlfriend, who also occasionally wrestled with his newfound immortality. In “Birds,” hot off the breakup with Joker, Harley eats Cheez Whiz, gets drunk and buys a hyena.
It’s not that “Birds” has to go as self-serious as the dismal “Joker” film, but despite a bigger R-rated funhouse in which to play, it kept its humor at a middle-school level. The result is never as transgressive or anarchistic as it thinks it is.
All that said, there are still worthwhile aspects of “Birds.” Winstead’s character is one that I hope producers decide needs her own standalone film, as the actor is overdue her spotlight. And it’s always a pleasure to have Perez back in action.
The film’s fight sequences are artfully designed, and shot with sparkle and skill. It’s just a shame that the story, such as it is, that bridges those fight sequences together is such a chronological puzzle that it’s hard for the film to settle into its own comfortable rhythm.
Editor’s note: Shortly after the movie’s release, a name change to “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” was announced.