Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” plays like a throw-it-at-the-wall experiment, but an earnest one. This eighth DC Extended Universe movie is certainly the least stiff — a free-flowing, time-jumping crime-and-evasion tale from the perspective of flighty narrator Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who we met in “Suicide Squad.” It’s not as good as it should be, but it’s not as bad as it could have been.
Christina Hodson (“Bumblebee”) pens a diamond-acquisition yarn that could be simple but is instead wild and wacky because that’s what this movie is. “Birds of Prey” calls to mind twisty, violent and curse-laden crime films whenever Ewan McGregor is on screen as Roman Sionis, an unpredictable Gotham crime lord who wants the diamond. It also serves as the DCEU’s answer to “Deadpool,” with Harley quipping both in-universe and as a narrator.
Neither of those comparisons serves “Birds of Prey” well, yet I was starting to like it by the end. The individual stories of Harley, kid pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), GCPD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), mercenary Dinah/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and vengeance-minded Helena/The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) converge in a way that’s not as clever as the film wants it to be. But when they gather at a restaurant – still covered in dirt and scrapes from battle – they have appealing chemistry.
The best action in director Cathy Yan’s big-ticket debut is saved for last, too. I can’t recall seeing a chase involving a motorcycle, a car and a roller-skater before, so hats off for originality. And the fun-house setting – while common in “Batman” Joker yarns – is designed to a colorful hilt. If only the movie could’ve locked into gear sooner.
“Birds of Prey” has spectacle throughout – Harley blasting people with a bean-bag gun that also shoots out sparkles — but it’s hard to take seriously. It’s not that there’s no chance one of the protagonists could get hurt or killed; the randomness of the events and Sionis himself see to that. It just takes too long for the titular group to read as people worth rooting for. Harley claims to be put-upon, but in her opening scene she doles out remorseless over-the-top violence, so we know she’s merely a cheerful psychopath.
The violence and cruelty hurts “Birds of Prey’s” tone. It might’ve played better if it focused more on the fun and made the violence more cartoonish. Sionis peels off the faces of his enemies, and he is unpredictable as he lords over the club he owns. (Crime kingpins running clubs will be familiar to “Gotham” viewers.) When a patron laughs too loudly, Sionis has her stand on a table, strip off her dress and dance. Sionis is already established as evil at this point, so we just get a hard-to-watch scene (although I guess it plays into Canary leaving his employ).
The standout among the titular group is Winstead’s The Huntress, but unfortunately she gets the least attention. I like how she wants to be a badass – and does indeed pull it off when the fighting starts – but she’s socially awkward, an affliction that affects her dramatic entrances and post-battle banter.
All of the actors are game for this material (although I can’t shake the idea that Perez in particular is too good for this). I like that most of these Gotham staples – other than Quinn herself — have not been seen in other DC screen properties lately. Victor Zsasz is an exception, but the turn by “The Mindy Project’s” Chris Messina is distinguished by being more playful than Anthony Carrigan’s creepy-calm turn on “Gotham.”
Speaking of Gotham, where is Batman in all of this? In the “Birds of Prey” TV series, opening narration explains that Batman has departed the city. But here, he’s an absent center. He should be sweeping in and cleaning up this mess; since he doesn’t, it seems like he’s slacking, which is out of character.
The real-world reason is that “Birds of Prey” – which is a case of Hodson and Yan playing with action figures on a grand scale – doesn’t have access to the Batman action figure. Or Commissioner Gordon or the Joker or any of the Justice League (remember, Metropolis is right next door to Gotham in this universe). I guess one could argue that Sionis is too small-time for their attention.
The DCEU’s inability – compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe – to map out a coherent interlocking narrative rears its head again. However, love it or hate it, I don’t think this movie will hurt the overall saga any more than “Deadpool’s” antics bring down the “X-Men” Universe. “Birds of Prey” is colorful, expensive, throwaway silliness, and your mileage will vary as much as Harley’s behavior.