Despite having some arresting imagery and a few good performances, Suicide Squad was a poor aping of a John Carpenter film that did not entertain or amuse. The movie did not even do right by its central attraction- Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn: reducing her origin story to music video cliff notes and her most human and interesting moments to the cutting room floor.
Now we have Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey or as it was known last week (Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Taking place after Harley Quinn’s break up with the Joker: Birds of Prey places Margot Robbie’s Jersey jester front and centre in a self directed story about how a chase for a diamond unites her with: a vengeance seeking vigilante known as Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), veteran and disgruntled cop, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), mob driver and singer, Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and a young pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
Despite being a female centred comic book movie, Birds of Prey does little of interest with this premise. On the surface, the film is about whether Harley Quinn can carve out her own identity outside of the Joker. But the film does not seem bothered in answering that question, often reducing it down to a gag about the career options Harley scribbles on a faux business card. There’s even an attempt to parallel the film’s central antagonist, Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) with the Joker insofar as they both want to control her, but it comes too late and can’t help but feel like hollow third act speechifying.
This is all compounded by a screenplay that is centred on a scrambled MacGuffin chase that does not unite its central cast until the very end. Birds of Prey often feels like a raspberry blowing reaction to its male counterparts. It does prove that female led comic book films can be as irreverent and violent. But that’s its only trick. It has as much interest in its female characters and their empowerment as the lyrics of a Spice Girls song, often painting them in generic terms. A constant gag about Renee Montoya being compared to a bad eighties cop encapsulates this quality.
Despite this, Birds of Prey does coast on its stylish direction, stunning action sequences and lively performances. Some of the movie’s best moments are vignettes that hint at some promise. There’s an early sequence where Harley is looking at a sandwich in a manner akin to a love struck boy looking at a girl in a romantic comedy. Set to Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby” and filmed in slow motion, the sequence takes an atypical way in which women are seen in films and satires it to hilarious effect.
Likewise, a watery slow motion action sequence in a police station is impressive in its ferocity and use of technique to focus on its stunt work as opposed to the female character doing them.
Margot Robbie excels in the central spotlight as Harley Quinn. She often mixes a wicked Dennis the Menace streak with a few insightful moments of observation that lend her character with intelligence. Robbie can be both comically sharp and heartfelt. Some of her best moments as the character walk this tightrope wonderfully. One early moment has her cutting her hair while saying changing yourself will make you feel better, only to cry at the end result of her hair looking different.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings a great deal of uncertainty and aloofness to Huntress, often feeling like someone who’s training hard to sound like an unfazed superhero. Ewan McGregor steals the show as Roman Sionis/Black Mask, who balances child like behaviour (particularly when reacting to spit) with a sadistic and animated nature that often makes him a captivating presence.
Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is a consistently energetic experience that charms with its spirited performances and dazzling direction. But it’s undermined by a screenplay that does not have much interest in assembling its team or doing anything particularly interesting with them. For the most part, its attitude and ascetic papers over its hollow cracks, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a reactionary effort.