Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed
Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan, 2020) 2½ out of 4 stars.
I came to Birds of Prey with not only no preconceived notions, no real knowledge aforehand of the characters, and no expectations, but also virtually zero interest. I hated the 2016 Suicide Squad, which introduced the DC Universe’s villains, and have never read any of the relevant comics featuring Harley Quinn, this new film’s main character (the subtitle of the movie is “And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”). And yet, somehow, I had a mostly good time, despite the excessive violence. This is far from a masterpiece, its script uneven (though often lively), but is still an enjoyable enough piece of entertainment. Instead of trying to say something and ending up with empty platitudes (as per the miserable Joker), Birds of Prey tries to say very little and ends up the richer for it, becoming a strong statement of female agency and solidarity. Bring on the mayhem; if the future is female, I’m game.
Unfortunately, despite some clever touches early on, the mise-en-scène is often just adequate, not taking full advantage of its fine actresses. At first, director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) – working off a screenplay by Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) – offers the promise that the narrative will go in all directions but straight (not a bad thing), looping in on itself as a metaphor for Harley Quinn’s scattered brain. After the first third, however, the jumps back and forth in time cease, and we end up with a fairly standard boilerplate series of fight scenes (albeit with women kicking butt this time). There’s a brief hint of what could have been, thanks to a whacky “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” musical number, but without follow-through it’s just a momentarily diverting one-off. Soon, we descend into the usual plot machinations of the action film, without much novelty.
Margot Robbie (Bombshell) plays Harley Quinn – our narrator – with vim, vigor, guts and gusto. She’s joined by Rosie Perez (Active Adults), Jurnee Smollett-Bell (One Last Thing), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (All About Nina) and feature-film newcomer Ella Jay Basco. In a regrettable turn, Ewan McGregor (Doctor Sleep) minces his way through the movie as lead baddie Roman Sionis, joined by Chris Messina (The Sweet Life) as henchman Victor Zsasz, the two doing their best to equate (latent?) homosexuality with psychosis. Forget them (if you can) and focus on the women. They’re far more fun.
The story begins with an animated sequence that explains Harley Quinn’s backstory up to her recent breakup with the Joker. On her own for the first time, she is suddenly a target of retribution from everyone she ever wronged. Detective Renee Montoya (Perez) is after her, too. When a young pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Basco), steals a diamond coveted by Sionis, Quinn sees a way out of her dangerous predicament, taking on the job of finding the kid in exchange for protection. Sionis’ driver – and his former cabaret singer – Dinah Lance (Smollett-Bell) steps in, as well, though to keep Cain (who lives in her apartment building) safe , rather than the diamond. As if the setup weren’t crazy enough, in walks a mysterious killer wielding a crossbow (Winstead). All the pieces are in place for the nuttiness to get wild.
As long as Yan stays with her five female leads, all is good. They have terrific chemistry together, and are clearly having a great time. It’s still Robbie’s show, however, and she is pitch-perfect in the part of a person with zero boundaries and (almost) no ethics. It’s too bad that things devolve into the ordinary by the last act, but until that happens, we zig and zag in often pleasant ways. Take the good with the less so and enjoy what you can.