Arts movie review

‘Birds of Prey’ is nothing to squawk at

DC’s newest showcase of Harley Quinn brings together a new cast of entertaining but mostly underdeveloped heroines

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Margot Robbie returns as Harley Quinn in 'Birds of Prey'.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Directed by Cathy Yan
Screenplay by Christina Hodson
Starring Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Ewan McGregor
Rated R, Now Playing

Ever since Suicide Squad came out and flopped in theaters, one of its few memorable takeaways was Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn. From the prevalence of Harley Quinn Halloween costumes that year, it was clear that she was bound to return to the screen. Knowing this at the time, Robbie was able to spearhead Birds of Prey in the hope that this new movie would stay true to the character. Working with director Cathy Yan, she and other lead characters were much more consistent and interesting than those in Suicide Squad.

In fact, a much better movie to compare to Birds of Prey is Deadpool. Both are superhero films where the titular character provides some heavy narration, and the first halves of both movies utilize a good amount of nonlinear storytelling in order to provide exposition and set up character motivations. This bouncing back and forth is honestly a bit distracting. Additionally, both movies are R-rated and use that freedom wisely. Harley is definitely a character that makes more sense when dropping F-bombs and inhaling the occasional drug. Violence is also heightened, so if you can’t watch a pair of legs get broken here and there, this might not be the movie for you.

The movie begins with Harley dealing with her breakup with the Joker and attempting to start finding her own place within Gotham. While partying, she meets Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), aka “Black Canary,” and Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), aka “Black Mask,” our main bad guy. At first, Harley mostly stumbles her way around the plot. It reminded me a lot of Jack Sparrow in the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean films, where he has been turned into a caricature who only progresses through the story through others’ decisions and his own dumb luck. It’s a little disappointing to see Harley portrayed similarly in the beginning, taking a while before she makes a decision that impacts the plot.

Roman starts off the movie as an engaging villain – his opening quintessential “I’m a villain” scene (you’ll know it when you see it) is strikingly brutal but also shows his instability. Despite McGregor’s overacting the character as an unredeemable prick throughout the movie, Roman also provides some of the funniest moments of the film. Another engaging character is Dinah, who starts out as a singer in Roman’s club. Her arc throughout the movie is probably the most interesting of any character’s. She is presented with many opportunities to try to do the right thing, and while she is a good person from the start, it is enjoyable to watch her learn to act on her morals when she could easily turn a blind eye.

As a film that introduces a decent-sized ensemble of new female fighters, it’s inevitable that many will feel one-dimensional. Yet many still get at least a splash of depth. For example, Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) mostly serves as an assassin but gets an unexpected dash of personality that plays surprisingly well. Pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) falls short in providing any individual charm, but her consistency and connections with other characters play well into the story. Gotham policewoman Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) comes across as a stereotypical ’80s detective (which they acknowledge in the film). However, her predictable storyline of trusting her gut against the will of her superior still gels well with other characters.

I also enjoyed most of the action sequences, which were well shot and choreographed. Some standouts include the colorful “terrible crime” that Harley reports, and the fun set pieces in the final act showdown between the “Birds of Prey” and Sionis’ henchmen. There were probably a few too many fight scenes, though, as many characters were given perhaps one too many opportunities to show off their skills. While the movie was a modest 109 minutes, I still feel some of the time could’ve been better spent, say, exploring Harley’s relationship with her pet hyena.

While there is certainly much to enjoy about the movie, I would have desired more substance from it. Especially with respect to the villains, it’s hard to get behind most characters. Roman Sionis is fairly unsophisticated in motivation. With the exception of Dinah Lance, it’s hard to point to much development and characterization of the lead roles, given that Birds of Prey is so plot-driven. That said, who am I to go into a Harley Quinn movie hoping for anything but a fun action flick?