February 6, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Cathy Yan
Culture Representation: Set in the fictional DC Comics city of Gotham, “Birds of Prey” has a racially diverse, female-centric cast of characters, ranging from heroes to villains.
Culture Clash: Harley Quinn, the story’s narrator and central character, is a supervillain who’s sometimes an ally of the heroic characters—and those ethical blurred lines can cause conflicts.
Culture Audience: “Birds of Prey” will appeal primarily to fans of comic-book-inspired movies if they are willing to tolerate this film’s preference for flashy visuals over a compelling story.
“Birds of Prey” is a wildly uneven action film that’s as unstable and wacky as its central character and narrator—the supervillain antihero Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie), who’s stepping out of the shadow of her ex-boyfriend Joker to inflict her own brand of over-the-top mayhem. Even though the movie is called “Birds of Prey,” based on DC Comics’ all-female group of superhero crimebusters, make no mistake: Harley Quinn is the real star of the show. A more accurate title for this movie should have been “Harley Quinn Featuring Birds of Prey.”
Australian actress Robbie (who’s one of the movie’s producers and who dons a Brooklyn-ish accent for Harley) first appeared as scene-stealing Harley Quinn in 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” It was inevitable that Harley Quinn would get her own movie, but Robbie performs in this film as if it’s a slapstick comedy, while the other actors take their roles in the more serious direction that almost all the other DC Comics-based movies have.
It’s that erratic tone to “Birds of Prey” that will be off-putting to comic-book purists who have been frustrated with how DC Comics-based feature films have inconsistently portrayed Gotham, which is the city of Batman, Joker, Harley Quinn and the Suicide Squad. Is Gotham the dark and pessimistic world that’s on the verge of imploding from its own corruption, as seen in Christopher Nolan’s and Zack Snyder’s “Batman” movies and Todd Phillips’ “Joker”? Or is Gotham the spooky retro-noir environment of Tim Burton’s “Batman” movies? Or is it the sewage-and-chemical-infested toxic dump of “Suicide Squad”?
In “Birds of Prey,” Gotham is none of those things. It’s basically a nihilistic playground for Harley and the movie’s chief villain, the flamboyantly malicious Roman Sionis (played by Ewan McGregor, who gives the campiest performance of his career so far), a nightclub owner who wants revenge on Harley at the same time that he wants power over her. Roman, who’s also known as Black Mask, has a thing for torturing people by cutting off masks of flesh from their faces.
“Birds of Prey” is the second feature film from director Cathy Yan, who previously helmed the little-seen, independent dark comedy “Dead Pigs,” which was a critical hit when it had its world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It’s extremely rare for a director to go from a micro-budget indie for a debut movie and then get the opportunity to direct a major-studio franchise film with a blockbuster budget. And perhaps that relative lack of directing experience was a hindrance, because “Birds of Prey” has some shockingly bad continuity problems.
For example, at the beginning of a scene where Harley Quinn ends up getting chased through the streets of Gotham by determined cop Renee Montoya (played by Rosie Perez), Harley is wearing mismatched shoes: one rainbow-colored shoe with a flat heel and one light-colored shoe with a high heel. But by the end of the chase scene, Harley is wearing matching shoes: the rainbow-covered, flat-heeled shoes. A few minutes after that scene, Renee goes back to the police station with pieces of garbage in her hair and on her clothes, due to the messy chase after Harley, but in cutaway shots, the garbage that was seen in her hair just seconds earlier is now missing.
The screenplay by Christina Hodson is also fairly problematic. For starters, the story has Harley Quinn feuding with too many people. There’s Harley Quinn vs. Roman Sionis. There’s Harley Quinn vs. Renee Montoya, one of the Birds of Prey. There’s Harley Quinn vs. Cassandra Cain, the young thief who has a rare diamond that Roman wants, so Harley basically has to kidnap Cassandra to get it. (Cassandra is played by Ella Jay Bosco, in her film debut, who spends most of the movie looking shocked and scared.)
And at different points in the movie, Harley is also at odds with two of the other Birds of Prey: Dinah Lance (played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell), also known as Black Canary, a singer at Roman’s nightclub, as well as Helena Bertinelli (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), also known as Huntress, a crossbow-slinging assassin who has a mysterious past that’s revealed in the movie to also be connected to the diamond. Black Canary doesn’t start off as a hero in the movie, since her loyalties flip-flop under pressure from her boss Roman. As for Huntress, she spends most of the film as an aloof loner who’s also caught up in finding the diamond.
About that search for the diamond: It’s got to be one of the worst ideas in recent years for the main conflict in a comic-book movie. Roman wants the diamond because it supposedly will give him the power to bribe people to do what he wants. Therefore, he kidnaps Harley and forces her to get the diamond for him. It doesn’t make much sense, but neither does most of this erratic movie, which includes a random musical sequence inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” scene in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” And where the diamond ends up being hidden is like something out of an Adam Sandler movie that’s fixated on bodily functions.
Although there are some comical moments in “Birds of Prey,” other attempts at humor fall very flat. The film relies too much on flashbacks told from Harley’s point of view, and she’s not exactly a reliable or coherent narrator. The movie’s violence and stunts are very cartoonish, but the action sequences are nevertheless the best parts of the film. If you can suspend your disbelief that Harley can take down five to eight muscle-bound, usually armed men at once, just by doing a bunch of gravity-defying cartwheels, flips and spins and by swinging her baseball bat, then you’ll have fun watching this kind of spectacle. Harley even manages to mow down several bad guys while she’s wearing roller skates, thanks to her experiences playing roller derby, which is shown at the beginning of the movie.
What’s less fun is watching moments of pure tedium and ridiculousness when the characters stand around and talk in the middle of major physical showdowns with their opponents. People of “Birds of Prey”: Take a cue from John Wick. He’s not going to suddenly strike up a conversation in the middle of kicking someone’s ass.
And there are a few things that are introduced in the “Birds of Prey” movie that are underused story ideas. For example, Harley gets a hyena named Bruce (named after Bruce Wayne), but the canine is nothing more than a pet that’s left at her home and brought out for Harley to show off to visitors. In the comic books, Harley has two hyenas that have much more active roles in her adventures. Black Canary also has a special power which she could have used much earlier in the film, but she doesn’t use it until it’s almost too late.
“Birds of Prey” might look like a feel-good feminist film on the surface, but there’s a lot of mean-spirited cattiness among the women for most of the movie. They don’t join forces until almost the very end, when the movie has its best action sequence. It’s a little bit of a slog to get to that point, and the movie would have been a lot better if Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey really were a team much earlier in the story.
And although the movie has a message of female empowerment, it shouldn’t be at the expense of making almost all the men in the film to be insufferable jerks and/or criminals. And there are some cringeworthy lines in the film, such as when Harley utters, “Nothing gets a guy’s attention like violence.” All of this male-bashing is just so unnecessary. Making almost all of the men look bad in this movie is also a turnoff to people who like to see a well-rounded variety of characters of any gender.
If you’re a die-hard fan of comic-book-based movies and if you have to see “Birds of Prey,” just know in advance that although it tries very hard to capture the type of irreverent adult humor that the first “Deadpool” movie had, “Birds of Prey” is really just a female-led diamond heist movie. We already had “Ocean’s 8,” thank you very much.
Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” on February 7, 2020.
UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has moved up the digital release of “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” to March 24, 2020.