Review: Birds of Prey Frees Harley Quinn but Is Bound to Franchise Formula

Birds of Prey feels at times less like its own story and more like a trailer for what’s coming next.

Birds of Prey
Photo: Warner Bros.

The self-consciously ornate subtitle for Birds of PreyAnd the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn—lays out the reason for this film’s existence far better than the first 45 minutes or so of jumbled exposition that follow. In theory, the self-consciously goofy story of a “badass broad” who breaks free from being pole-dancing eye candy for her villain boyfriend to carve out a life for herself would be a welcome addition to a canon of films still in thrall to hyper-buff and hyper-serious dudes. And surrounding her with a squad of equally fierce and sarcastic female ass-kickers has the potential for a vibrant, pop-punk comedic franchise: Think Guardians of the Galaxy by way of Barb Wire. But since the film can never figure out how seriously to take its heroine, or how to gin up a halfway engaging caper what could have been an emancipation ends up feeling more like a trap for the character.

A homicidally daffy, mallet-wielding roller girl with a PhD in psychology buried somewhere underneath her manic moods and Noo Joisey accent, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) was just about the only spark in director David Ayer’s turgid Suicide Squad. Theoretically breaking loose from being the Joker’s moll, while enjoying the protection that comes with everyone thinking they’re still together, Harley starts off Birds of Prey in full motormouthed party-girl bloom. While she rips it up at the nightclub of crime boss Roman (Ewan McGregor), a.k.a. Black Mask, the machinery of a larger superhero franchise grinds into action around her.

In a more earthbound twist on Marvel’s Infinity Stone McGuffins, Christina Hodson’s screenplay goes positively old-fashioned. Here, Roman and his goons are hunting for a diamond and killing anyone who gets in their way. Pickpocketing urchin Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco) steals it by accident. Banding together to keep Cassandra alive, Harley and her loose-knit gang of heroines—ranging from alcoholic detective Renee (Rosie Perez) to Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer with a mean karate kick, and appealingly dorky bow-wielding assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)—all find their own type of emancipation amid the crossbow-shooting and WrestleMania-grade backflips. Meanwhile, Harley runs, skips, and roller-skates away from all the police officers and thieves who have her in their crosshairs.

Cathy Yan’s film does a shoddy job of tying all these characters together while keeping an eye on Harley’s shenanigans. Instead, there’s greater focus on the casual sadism that’s become one of the more depressing characteristics of the DC Universe. Early on, we’re treated to Roman and his scarred sycophant, Victor (Chris Messina, exuding far more magnetism than the role deserves), giggling while carving the faces off a gangland rival and his family. It’s utterly brutal and played entirely for laughs. A later scene in which Roman humiliates a woman and forces her to strip in public is less bloody but just as gratuitous.

Elsewhere, Bird of Prey’s fight scenes are choreographed with little imagination and a great amount of focus on snapping bones. One promising set piece, a half-dream sequence that riffs on the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” sequence from Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes attempts to illustrate Harley’s cracked mentality—part flirty bombshell, part killer queen of the roost, all mixed with an Adderall loopiness—by substituting assault rifles and bondage masks for jewelry and furs. But it’s over almost before it’s even worked up a sweat, the whole thing suggesting a half-sketched-out Lady Gaga music video.

What Birds of Prey has going for it is a less leering, self-important gaze than Suicide Squad. Freed from her prior status as the hot-pants bimbo, Harley is able to carry some stretches of this film strictly on her fizzy narration and a bouncy optimism that propels her through one seemingly no-win situation after another. Her Terminator-like assault on a police station—she wields a grenade launcher packed with smoke rounds and glitter bombs—is one of the only moments that achieves the anarchic glee that the film otherwise strains for. Rather than let yet another film fall under the spell of the Joker, who looms large in everyone’s imagination here, the filmmakers puncture that balloon with quick efficiency. After Harley rhapsodizes about “Mr. J” like a conflicted ex-girlfriend wondering whether they should have broken up, Cassandra puts it plain: “Sounds like a dick.” It’s an effective clapback at Suicide Squad.

Yes, Harley has liberated herself from the Joker and found a new gang to pall around or fight with (depending on her mood). But the story’s rote crimeland plot, over-eager and unsuccessful stabs at subversive humor, and failure to bring its ensemble together until far too late in the film don’t leave her with anywhere particularly interesting to go. The character of Harley might be emancipated, but the somewhat rote and franchise-minded story she’s stuck inside is hardly as unbound. Like too many movies in the current comic-book onslaught, Birds of Prey feels at times less like its own story and more like a trailer for what’s coming next.

 Cast: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ewan McGregor, Ella Jay Basco, Chris Messina, Ali Wong  Director: Cathy Yan  Screenwriter: Christina Hodson  Distributor: Warner Bros.  Running Time: 109 min  Rating: R  Year: 2020  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Chris Barsanti

Chris Barsanti has written for the Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and Online Film Critics Society.

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