BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) (Cathy Yan). 109 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (February 7). See listing. Rating: NNN
Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) states its mission right there in the title: to liberate Margot Robbie’s whirligig chaos agent from the yoke of 2016’s wretched Suicide Squad, which saw her only as a giggly manipulator in hot pants. Both the character and the actor are capable of considerably more, and this is the movie that proves it.
Birds Of Prey removes Harley from the grim, grey slog of David Ayer’s boneheaded action movie and drops her into the brighter, more colourful world of Gotham City, seen here more times in daylight than it has been since the 60s Batman TV series. (This might be because the Dark Knight is entirely absent from this adventure, as is Harley’s ex-boyfriend the Joker maybe they’re off arguing about whether the Joaquin Phoenix movie is canonical.)
The sun might be shining, but Gotham is still a cesspool, with crime syndicates slaughtering each other while the police shrug and look the other way. And somewhere in the middle of the mayhem are Harley’s future associates: tough cop Renée Montoya (Rosie Perez), nightclub singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and a mysterious avenger (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) whom people are calling the Crossbow Killer, even though she has a better name in mind for herself.
They’re all drawn together by the hunt for a young pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who’s stolen something of immense value to vicious crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and thus has a massive price on her head. As it happens, so does Harley her breakup with Mister J means she’s no longer under his protection, and every goon in Gotham is out for her head. Cue the mayhem.
When it’s in motion, Birds Of Prey can be a lot of fun: the decision to reposition Harley as the hero of her own story is a smart one, and Robbie’s energy and presence is more than enough to carry a picture. More importantly, Christina Hodson’s script respects the character’s history as much as her fighting skills, building a sharp running gag out of the former Dr. Harleen Quinzel constantly (and accurately) therapizing everyone she meets.
The problem is that she’s just one of many moving parts vying for screen time in a movie that feels overstuffed and under-plotted at the same time. Hodson and director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) work very hard to juggle the arcs and activities of half a dozen major characters, not all of whom fit together organically. Harley wasn’t a member of the Birds Of Prey in the comics, but rather one of their adversaries, so telling this story from her perspective is trickier than it might otherwise have been. (She’s also the narrator, playfully imposing a scrambled chronology that’s not nearly as much fun as the filmmakers seems to think it is.)
When the movie stops to focus on its other principals – especially Smollett-Bell’s conflicted Dinah, whom you may know as the Black Canary, and Winstead’s hyper-focused Helena Bertinelli, who shows up like a Terminator throughout the story – we get a sense of them as individuals with goals of their own rather than supporting players in Harley’s drama. That’s a good thing – and in DC terms, it’s considerably more than the Justice League movie managed to accomplish.
Even so, it takes Birds Of Prey a very, very long time to put its team together, and the heavy they’re facing just isn’t that heavy. McGregor’s petty Sionis is an even less engaging villain than Jared Leto’s strutting Joker, and he’s saddled with Chris Messina as a creepy henchman who encourages his boss’s more sadistic tendencies. It’s clearly intended to point out the stunted weaknesses of evil men, but it occasionally tips into pure cruelty, as in a moment where Roman humiliates a random patron at his club just because he can. (It’s a little too real for the movie’s brighter, bouncier tone.)
Mostly, though, the movie works. The set pieces are strong, the action choreography kinetic and fun, and once all the characters are finally in the same place, Birds Of Prey delivers proper super-team mayhem. It’s an improvement on Suicide Squad by almost every metric imaginable… and really, at this point that’s all that matters.