BIRDS OF PREY: AND THE THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN
(**)-JIM RUTKOWSKI
"The parts of Birds of Prey that work are extremely fun, but there’s too long of a wait to get there"

Clipped Wings

(021420) Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), is a spin-off from David Ayer’s messy and quite frankly terrible 2016 film Suicide Squad. The only thing returning from that abysmal film is Margot Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn. Birds of Prey starts as a breakup story, with a montage of Harley processing her breakup with Mr. J (thankfully Jared Leto does not reprise his Joker), having fun with breakup clichés and blowing up chemical plants, as one does. And then Harley finds herself caught in the middle of a few people with different agendas all searching for a diamond encoded with bank codes to a secret mob fortune. The film is extremely exposition-heavy, introducing five or six main characters and connecting them all together.

We first meet Gotham City Police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who battles an alcohol problem and structural inequality. Perez handles the role well, which is no surprise, but the performance might be more effective if it wasn’t lamp-shaded multiple times as a riff on cop movies. Each character is basically lifted from their own genre and mashed together in this film. Aside from Montoya, Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a noir nightclub singer for a crime boss, Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a vigilante out for vengeance for her murdered mafia family, and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) a young pickpocket, are all caught up in the search for the diamond. Smollett-Bell gives a wonderfully understated performance as Lance, and the way she meshes with Winstead’s vigilante–both characters burdened by family legacies–is extremely satisfying. All of these women have targets on their backs placed there by Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), aka Black Mask, a feudal-minded crime boss out to take over Gotham. McGregor clearly relishes every gold-leafed article of clothing, his eyeliner, and other artifacts of Sionis’ former life of luxury before being cut off by his wealthy family. He’d feel right at home in an R-rated take on Joel Schumacher’s Gotham City.

Birds of Prey feels like a Deadpool movie starring Harley Quinn, and like that franchise, it struggles to bring a cult character to the screen while capturing what made the character popular in the first place. Harley Quinn has developed from her original Batman: The Animated Series incarnation as the Joker’s moll to that of a full-fledged character in the comics who has left the Joker behind. But her larger cultural footprint, including Suicide Squad, still has her tethered to Mr. J. Harley states early on in the film that she needs to discover her identity beyond her dependence on the Joker. But within the course of the film, that promised journey of self-discovery never actualizes beyond her mere survival. There’s nothing in Birds of Prey like Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) climbing out of the trenches, or Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) dispatching Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) with the smallest effort in Captain Marvel. It’s not that Harley needs to reform or completely dispatch her demons, but she never moves beyond “The Joker’s ex” in this story. It feels like a disservice to the character. Just like Deadpool, the film seems to feel that fans want her packaged inside a little box exactly the way they like her already and not changing too much.

Structurally, the script evokes Harley’s thought patterns, jumping back and forth to fill in back-story. There’s also omnipresent voiceover from Quinn’s character, which also creates distance between the audience and the action. And because of the structure, Birds of Prey feels it necessary to treat us to the same flashback three times in a film that clocks in just slightly under two hours. It keeps the film from finding a rhythm, lurching back and forth rather than moving forward through the story. Birds of Prey tries really hard to give each of its characters a full back-story, but that means a lot of exposition.

The cast also has wonderful chemistry, but the film keeps them apart for almost the entire runtime, which exacerbates the feeling that it takes a long time to get going. The final action sequence, where all of the characters are finally in the same space at the same time, is a ton of fun. But staying engaged throughout the movie to get to that is sometimes a struggle. Birds of Prey still struggles with hewing to the aesthetic template of Zack Snyder, and scenes set on Gotham City streets suffer with this the most. Whenever breaks free of that aesthetic, the film shines, like in two of its primary locations: Sionis’ Black Mask Club and the abandoned funhouse hideout. Both are intensively designed, approaching garishness. Each brings to mind the Schumacher and the 1966 Batman television show in the best of ways.

The things I liked about Birds of Prey were the things that felt distinct because they weren’t concerned with maintaining a sense of realism. The best sequence in the film is a fantasy dance number of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” featuring Harley and Sionis. It’s very similar to the “You’ll Never Know, Just How Much, I Love You” cutaway in The Shape of Water, albeit with a vastly different tone. The setup for it is interesting, as it is a moment of literal escapism for Quinn, and her dancing with Sionis has interesting implications. Maybe he was originally supposed to be her rebound guy? With the amount of voiceover and how short this elaborately staged sequence is, it feels like this film was given enough “studio notes” to force it back into the box, which is disappointing.

The action sequences are fun enough, but the story grinds to a halt to have a fight and then picks it up on the other side. Action, like musical numbers, work best when they advance the story, develop character, or provide some kind of narrative momentum. Here, they feel like boxes being checked. The final sequence is the highlight of the film in this regard as well, but the film struggles to maintain energy for most of its runtime.
The parts of Birds of Prey that work are extremely fun, but there’s too long of a wait to get there. I especially hope to see more from Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whether in these roles or in another movie. And I look forward to Cathy Yan’s next movie as director. While a vast improvement over Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey is a disappointment for staying too close to the template. Death by a thousand studio notes designed to sell Funko pops.
 

Directed by:   Cathy Yan
Written by:    Christina Hodson
Starring:    Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Released:    020720
Length:    109 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material

BIRDS OF PREY: AND THE THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN © 2020 Warner Bros Pictures
Review © 2020 Alternate Reality, Inc.