This is a film that wants so desperately for us to believe it’s edgy and twisted that it forgets to actually be edgy and twisted. This is not to say that the latest DC Comics movie entry, Birds of Prey (technically as spinoff of 2016’s abysmal Suicide Squad, whose undeniable highlight was Margot Robbie’s take on Joker’s partner in crime, Harley Quinn), isn’t fun at times, but I’ve rarely seen so many people work so hard to convince me they’re having a good time at being absolutely mental, yet feel so extraordinarily conventional.
Unlike the Suicide Squad crew, which was put together by a government agency, the Birds of Prey come together more organically. Although Joker doesn’t actually make an appearance here, that doesn’t stop screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) and director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) from leaning heavily into his influence. When we are reintroduced to Harley, she and “Mr. J” have just broken up, which apparently means that any protections she had being affiliated with him are now gone, leaving Gotham City’s criminals permission to kill her if they so choose. I’m still not entirely clear why everyone in Gotham suddenly wants her dead, but she was in a toxic relationship, which lead to her doing some regrettable things.
One of the people Harley wronged was crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), also known as Black Mask, something of a flashy party boy, who only seems to have one speed and one elevated volume when he speaks. He’s more obnoxious than threatening, and he almost single-handedly sinks this movie, thus continuing DC’s problem with getting quality villains in its movies. Sionis has a sidekick named Zsasz (an almost unrecognizable Chris Messina), who is far more deviant and sinister a force in Birds of Prey than Black Mask, so more often than not, my eyes would go to him when McGregor was meant to take center stage.
There is no denying that ever since The Wolf of Wall Street seven years ago, Robbie has proved herself time and time again (three times just in the last year) as one of the finest actors of her generation. She’s clearly having a cathartic blast playing Harley Quinn, who looks like she’s jumped right off the colorful pages of a comic book, perhaps more than any other filmed comic book character in history. Between her addressing the audience occasionally to catch us up on her life and criminal career and her splashy (and admittedly revealing) costumes to her penchant for extreme violence and bad jokes, Harley is such a perfect cartoon come to life that it’s near impossible not to get drawn into caring about her exploits.
But as other, less interesting villains attempt to straight-up murder her, she falls into line with a small band of female heroes, some of whom are also targets of Sionis and his crew (of entirely men, it should be noted). Among those siding (perhaps reluctantly, in some cases) with Harley are the crossbow-wielding Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a young girl named Cass (Ella Jay Basco), and police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), all of whom team up more out of necessity than anything else. But they grow to trust and rely on each other before long, because it helps ensure their survival. The plot centers around a rather valuable diamond (valuable in several ways) that Cass has ingested, and it’s up to the Birds of Prey to determine whether it comes out naturally or is cut out of her by the bad guys. It’s about as appealing as it sounds.
There are some attempts at fairly juvenile humor in Birds of Prey, including an extended sequence about an egg sandwich that couldn’t have interested me any less, as well as an incredible amount of effort placed into trying to make Harley seem more twisted and dangerous than she ever really lives up to being here. Most of the people she hurts or kills are bad guys, and when civilians are caught in the crossfire, it’s often by accident—which doesn’t excuse her behavior, but it also doesn’t quite exude “Villain.” The film also decides to jump around chronologically for reasons I am at a loss to explain, serving more to confuse the audience than give us any big reveals or plot twists. Again, it’s a disguise to make things seem complex and interesting when they truly aren’t.
The far more interesting aspects of Birds of Prey are the subtext about what happens to people when they sustain prolonged abuse or other forms of violence. Most of the lead characters in the movie are suffering from a form of PTSD, with each finding unique ways to cope. It’s that shared condition that brings these women together, bonds them, and makes them not only a surprisingly strong team but something of a therapy group. The film doesn’t address this directly, but it’s hard to miss (like most things in Birds of Prey—it’s not exactly the most subtle film you’ll see this year).
The action sequences are a mixed bag of standard-issue chases, explosions, and fighting, but with a few clever, original and bloody ideas sprinkled in just to keep things interesting. Of the team members, Winstead stands out as the character I’d most like to see head her own film (or at least return with this team for a second film), but Perez is a genuine standout as an embittered detective who has been passed over for promotions by lesser men and basically doesn’t give a shit who knows how pissed off she is. It nice to be reminded what a powerhouse Perez can be in the right role, and she seems born to play Montoya.
In case you were curious, Birds of Prey is indeed rated R, for a few scenes of gory violence and some liberal usage of four-letter words. I’m guessing the underage folks sneaking into see this will not be traumatized by anything they see. The film has a high-energy soundtrack, a bombastic score from Daniel Pemberton, and enough deviance from Robbie and company to keep us interested despite some truly lame villain work from McGregor, who seems more interested in waving his arms around and shouting cliches than being interesting or layered. When this latest generation of DC movies figures out their bad guy problem, they are going to soar. Instead, we get Rip Taylor in a black skull mask. Still, the film is visually compelling with enough subtext to make it unique as well.
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