A No-Quinn Situation
The first thing one notices about Birds of Prey is its title: a nineteen-syllable mouthful that’s messy, unwieldy, and has way too much going on. Regrettably, it’s also a sign of things to come. But first, the plot: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), best known as the Joker’s cheerfully psychotic girlfriend, has been dumped by her sadistic beau. Word of the breakup spreads, and a swarm of vengeance-seekers descend upon Harley, who’s no longer protected by Gotham’s clown prince of crime. Meanwhile, gangster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) is on the hunt for a valuable diamond, which has fallen into the hands (and later, stomach) of Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a teenage pickpocket. Eventually, Harley finds herself teamed up with tough cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Sionis’s former lackey Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), forming the titular squad in an effort to protect Cassandra and bring down the ruthless crime lord.
Though it’s certainly not as bad as Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey retains many of its faults. The movie spends a disproportionate amount of time establishing its new characters, flashing back to a minutes-long backstory segment every time a new ally is introduced and grinding the story to a halt in the process. Even without these cutaways, the script has a nasty habit of sloppily jumping back and forth between time periods to various episodes in Harley’s life. It’s not until the halfway point that the story begins to unfold linearly.
As indicated by its full title, Birds of Prey can’t decide if it wants to be a Harley Quinn solo vehicle or an Avengers-like ensemble film, so it tries to do both and fails miserably. Far too much of the movie is devoted solely to getting these characters in a room together, an extended act of stage-setting that lasts until the final reel. In the end, everybody gets shortchanged: we’re deprived of Harley, the movie’s ostensible protagonist, while the birds of prey jockey for bits of screen time and get rushed through character arcs while the audience has only the vaguest idea of who they are. The most egregious instance of this is the half-assed reveal of one character’s previously unmentioned superpower in the movie’s last fifteen minutes.
To be fair, Birds of Prey isn’t especially concerned with substance – this movie deals in style. From an animated prologue to a musical fantasy sequence, it’s awash in saturated colors and gaudy costumes. This aesthetic isn’t without its tacky appeal, but it grates just as often as it charms. Take the ever-present soundtrack, a whiplash-inducing playlist that has Heart and Joan Jett on one end and a litany of terrible dubstep tracks on the other. This is no doubt meant to reflect Harley’s chaotic energy; in practice, it’s just exhausting.
The action doesn’t fare much better. Director Cathy Yan has two strings to her fight-scene bow: Zack Snyder-esque slow motion and drawn-out long takes. The former has its moments, especially when applied to well-worn tricks like particulate explosions of confetti and powder, but the latter is just rough. Sequences not propped up by stylization are painfully stilted, their blows carrying little weight and their choreography so telegraphed that you can practically see the actors’ marks on the floor. The worst case of this is the movie’s climactic brawl, a lifeless wide shot featuring the birds of prey unconvincingly taking down one henchman after another. The approach has the opposite problem of shaky-cam editing: the action, and all its unsightly seams, is far too clear.
The movie’s one unequivocal positive is the presence of its two leads. Ewan McGregor and Margot Robbie elevate every scene they’re in, the former having the time of his life as the childish, prissy, somewhat fey Black Mask, and the latter giving it her charismatic all in the same perfectly cartoonish performance that made her Suicide Squad’s only bright spot. It’s sad to see her once again nail this role in the service of a movie unworthy of her talents.
But Birds of Prey’s biggest letdown is its lack of genuine bite. Despite an R-rating that lets it revel in campy violence and an adolescent overuse of profanity, it rarely feels unsafe. The gore and swearing come across as token, but the real compromise is Harley herself, who never feels like a villain, or even much of an antihero. For all her supposed wickedness, her only nefarious acts are the murders of faceless goons and petty crimes like theft. She’s even given a teenage mentee to make her more relatable. Such choices miss the point: we don’t like characters like Harley because deep down, they care; we like them because deep down, they don’t. By keeping Harley’s moral ambiguity superficial and unthreatening, Birds of Prey exposes itself as phony. It’s faux edgy, faux dangerous, faux punk. It’s Hot Topic in movie form, and largely undeserving of its iconic protagonist. Harely Quinn may be free of her controlling ex-boyfriend, but in this movie, she’s more tied down than ever.