'Birds of Prey': Film Review

Action-packed, but more rule-following than its bonkers protagonist.
2/7/2020

Margot Robbie reprises the role of Harley Quinn in Cathy Yan's film about a group of DC Comics women who are forced to fight together.

A second (live-action) chance for a much-loved DC Comics character to overtake the big screen, Cathy Yan's Birds of Prey rescues the anarchic cutie Harley Quinn from 2016's execrable would-be franchise starter Suicide Squad, pairing her with a nascent all-woman band of crime-fighters.

Billed on posters under the unwieldy title Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), it's the second ensemble outing for a character (and, with Margot Robbie, a performance) screaming for the spotlight — or, at worst, second billing to the most charismatic villain in comics, the Joker. Leaning more heavily into action than laughs, the pic largely delivers on that front. But those hoping for a Deadpool-like fusion of mayhem and wit should lower their expectations: Harley may be known for her unpredictability, but Birds plays by action-movie rules.

The best news here is that this film requires no experience with its predecessor. All you need to know about Quinn is explained in a combination of animation and voiceover early on: Born Harleen Quinzel, she had daddy issues and a Catholic-school upbringing. She became a shrink, then was assigned to work with the Joker during one of his many periods of incarceration. She fell in love with the psychopath, helped him escape, and became the "badass broad" behind many of his crimes. But as Birds begins, they've broken up for good.

Harley, accustomed to doing any crazy, violent thing that enters her mind, doesn't realize how protected she has been by the public's fear of Joker. Once word of their split gets out, every underworld denizen she's ever wronged wants her head on a plate — few more than Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a crime lord also known as Black Mask. A vain, hammy villain whose affectations include wearing monogrammed gloves no matter the weather, Sionis is bent on obtaining a diamond that, however valuable in its own right, holds the key to a much vaster fortune. But that gem is casually stolen by a pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), and Sionis agrees to spare Harley's life if she'll find the diamond for him.

Christina Hodson's screenplay indulges in a couple of epic flashbacks as it lays out this premise, sometimes disrupting chronological momentum for no clear purpose. When it starts pulling other women into the action, its time-hopping seems largely an excuse to (along with the film's score) imitate Kill Bill: We meet Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the sole living member of the family who once owned that magnificent diamond. After she saw her parents and siblings killed, Helena trained for decades so she could get revenge. She's now the Huntress, and, despite the fun she has with a small-scale crossbow, Winstead's the most under-used actor in the film.

The other Birds, coming to the action from different angles, are an underappreciated police detective named Montoya (Rosie Perez) and a singer named Dinah (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Comics fans will know that Dinah, nicknamed Black Canary, has a superpower up her sleeve. But that only emerges very late in the tale, and Smollett-Bell enjoys the script's second-most fully realized part, playing a woman who can't escape being employed by Roman Sionis.

As she throws Harley Quinn into various kinds of trouble, convinces her to save the young thief instead of turning her over and has the women team up to fight Roman's ever-expanding gang, Yan finds plenty of opportunities for exciting set pieces: Extravagant action choreography makes the most of colorful set design, unlikely gimmicks and wrasslin'-style brutality. But Hodson's script offers far less diverting banter than it might've between the fight scenes, and has a hard time imagining the unconstrained id that makes Harley Quinn so magnetic. One or two beautiful sequences — like the one in which Harley's longing for a perfect breakfast sandwich leads to tragedy — don't suffice to keep the character's magnetic madness alive onscreen.

Nor does the picture suggest there'd be any reason to watch a Birds of Prey movie that stars only the crimefighters who'll eventually adopt that name. Without Harley Quinn, these are characters who'd be doing well to carry a basic-cable TV series. Cassandra Cain, in the comics, is one of many women who fight crime under the Batgirl moniker. But nothing in Birds of Prey suggests she'd ever merit further attention, far out in this suburb of Gotham with Batman nowhere to be found.

Production companies: LuckyChap Entertainment, Clubhouse Pictures, Kroll & Co. Entertainment
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor
Director: Cathy Yan
Screenwriter: Christina Hodson
Producers: Sue Kroll, Margot Robbie, Bryan Unkeless
Executive producers: David Ayer, Walter Hamada, Geoff Johns, Hans Ritter, Galen Vaisman
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: K.K. Barrett
Costume designer: Erin Benach
Editors: Jay Cassidy, Evan Schiff
Composer: Daniel Pemberton
Casting director: Rich Delia

Rated R, 108 minutes