Four years after the baffling box office success and artistic low point of Suicide Squad, we have a spinoff movie that, thankfully, is so much better than the film that inspired it. Margot Robie returns as Harley Quinn, Joker’s unhinged ex-girlfriend and a formerly respectable Arkham Asylum psychologist, who is now lawless, deranged, and single. Birds of Prey depicts Quinn’s encounters with women on both sides of law and how they gradually form the group that’s the movie’s namesake.
How much you love the movie depends on whether you adore or merely endure Robie’s performance. I admire Robie’s tenacity and she has great moments, but this is a self-aware, preening, and vocally irritating turn. The character is psychotic and, to an extent, Robie’s manic turn is in line with this, but it’s also a vehicle for her to wildly over-act, flash yet another toothsome smile and wink at the camera. Her narration doesn’t help either, as it only showcases Robie’s decision to give the character a grating, nasally, Tank Girl meets Cyndi Lauper voice. While I liked most of Birds of Prey, it’s a very mixed bag, tonally inconsistent and at the mercy of Robie’s obnoxious acting choices.
As the main villain, Ewan McGregor appears to be attempting to match the level of Robie’s performance and gives a turn that is equally hit and miss; he has an inspired moment involving a shrunken head, but this kind of grand clowning doesn’t suit him. I missed the controlled, understated work he gave in Doctor Sleep.
As in Gemini Man, Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes an aggressive bid at becoming an action star and, as much as I like her as an actress, I’m not buying it. However, Jurnee Smollett-Bell is terrific as Black Canary, exuding the kind of presence and performance that could carry her own movie. Like many my age, I never fell out of love with Rosie Perez, who not only acquits herself well but gives a great performance.
Presenting the movie from the POV of Quinn’s psyche makes for a zany, propulsive film but even this doesn’t always work. For example, there’s a heavily truncated and terrible musical number that should have been tossed. The central aspects of the plot, involving a diamond, a pickpocket who befriends Quinn, and the creation of the Birds of Prey, really aren’t that interesting. On the other hand, the movie had me when it introduced a hyena as a supporting character. The action sequences are special, with fight scenes that are choreographed and shot and edited with a clean, unflinching, and fluid poetry, matching anything in John Wick or Atomic Blonde.
As a depiction of a woman who embraces independence and doesn’t need a male to define her, the film peaks early. Quinn’s highly visible means of putting her ex behind her is a wonderful visual. So is the Ralph Bakshi-like animated sequence that opens the film. Otherwise, this has as much to say about female empowerment as Sucker Punch (which is to say, nothing at all).
Whereas Aquaman has a healthy sense of humor about itself and the Marvel movies mine quips from their central characters, Birds of Prey does something else entirely. To my fascination and delight, here is a comic book/superhero film so campy, it could have been directed by Joel Schumacher. While the whole thing is a bit overlong and very hit and miss, it at least commits whole heartedly to being as take-it-or-leave-it silly as Frank Miller’s The Spirit or the late ‘90s Batman movies. I found this approach a breath of fresh air, in contrast to the tired, overly serious tone of most comic book adaptations and their need to be “dark” in order to establish credibility.
I enjoyed the soundtrack and an early sequence involving the fate of a breakfast sandwich as kind of sublime. Birds of Prey isn’t great, exactly, but there’s enough here to recommend it, even as its pleasures come via inconsistent, sporadic blasts. It’s worlds better than the execrable, barely releasable Suicide Squad and works surprisingly well as a stand-alone DC Comics adaptation. Yet, as much as I like her work as an actress, I’m not looking forward to seeing Robie play this character again. Quinn was the only thing worth watching in Suicide Squad but here, a little of her goes a very long way. On the other hand, if there’s a sequel, please bring back the hyena.
Two and a Half Stars
Rated R/109 Min.