FILM REVIEW – BIRDS OF PREY: AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN. With Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ewan McGregor. Written by Christina Hodson. Directed by Cathy Yan. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material. 109 minutes.
With the notable exception of the Christopher Nolan “Batman” movies with Christian Bale, the continued attempts to mine DC Comics characters for the big screen continues to fail. (Unlike, oddly enough, the various television efforts.) BIRDS OF PREY: AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN is merely the latest disaster off the assembly line.
Clearly an attempt to launch a new franchise, the story takes Margot Robbie’s character Harley Quinn from “Suicide Squad” (2016) and have her lead an all-female group. Nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that the character arcs for all five are the same: they were wronged by some man. Quinn has been dumped by her (unseen) lover, the Joker, and is out on her own. She becomes protective of young Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a tween pickpocket in an abusive home, who has stolen – and swallowed – a valuable diamond. Through some not-very-convincing plot churning, she is joined by Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a police detective who loses credit for her work to an unscrupulous male boss, The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is seeking revenge on the men who murdered her entire family, and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who works for the paranoid and sadistic Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor).
The problems begin with building the story around Quinn as narrator. The character was a colorful stand-out in the lackluster “Suicide Squad,” but as the center of attention here one is struck how shallow and selfish she is. The other characters are similarly flat, defined by both their victimhood and their willingness to do violence. There are numerous fight scenes that are well-staged and choreographed, although missing the opportunity for a middle finger joke during a funhouse sequence. They lack consequence because the only reason to root for the Birds of Prey (a name they don’t take until the end of the movie) is that Sionis is even worse.
How much worse? Even with the film’s “R” rating, his sadistic streak focuses on torture (as with captives getting their faces cut off) and humiliation (of a young woman in his nightclub) in ways that should make viewers squirm. It’s not the fact that he’s evil, but that these scenes make viewers his partner as he gleefully inflicts pain on others. Ironically, McGregor turns in the film’s best performance, seemingly the only one aware that he’s a character in a comic book movie.
As for Robbie, she has continued to impress as an actress – she’s up for an Oscar for “Bombshell” – but does herself no favors here. The character of Harley Quinn is an immature adolescent fantasy of a badass hottie who was a brilliant psychiatrist before being raped and tortured by the Joker, becoming his lover. Her character has no arc and simply hits the same notes over and over. Robbie can do, and deserves, better.
“Birds of Prey” may not turn out to be the worst film of the year, but it is the nadir thus far.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.