BIRDS OF PREY
(AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN)
** SPOILERS **
You know those little windup toys you can get for cheap? Maybe one's a little monkey clanging cymbals, another could be a little dinosaur with chattering teeth, and a windup car that goes vroom for a few feet before coming to a dead stop? Director Cathy Yan's Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is like five of those toys clanging together for an hour and 47 minutes. The only things they have in common is the kid who happens to be playing with them and at the end, she lines them all up and has a little race, which is, admittedly, kinda fun, but then she gets called inside for dinner and leaves all her trinkets on the sidewalk.
Birds of Prey is as colorful and messy as Harley Quinn herself and the film is, shall we say, not very good, but it tries very hard and earnestly. Centering entirely on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the breakout character of Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey is about her coming into her own as a strong, independent, clown princess of crime (kind of) after her breakup with the Joker (presumably Jared Leto, but Mr. J is unseen but constantly talked about, like Poochie). The Joker actually throws Harley out unceremoniously (by literally just locking her out of his house) and Harley narrates her own emancipation as she tries to start anew without being the harlequin subservient to her male master (her words). Unfortunately, little Miss Quinn learns that her affiliation with the Joker was the only thing that was shielding her from Gotham's underworld wanting to string her up by her heels. Harley becomes a target of every (non-costume-wearing) thug wanting to collect a huge bounty in Gotham City's East End, a section of town Batman apparently never visits and is run by trust fund baby/crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), aka Black Mask. Why is he called Black Mask? Because, by the end of the movie, he wears a black mask (that's as deep as this thing gets).
Because Harley is narrating this little tale (and she's cuh-razy... sometimes), Birds of Prey is somehow both thinly-plotted and overplotted simultaneously and the movie unfolds in bewildering fits and starts. It's as if screenwriter Christina Hodson (who wrote the excellent Bumblebee) tried to crib Pulp Fiction while she was high on meth, but then she gave up and got hit by a bus, scattering the pages every which way. The film introduces us (and Harley) to the other Gotham girls in this Gang of Five: First, there's Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who likes to be called Black Canary (according to Harley, but Dinah herself never says so), and is a chanteuse/chauffeur working for Sionis. Dinah is the only one with superpowers: a Canary Cry sonic scream that she only uses once (on purpose). Then there's Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a grizzled cop always being passed over by mediocre men in the GCPD (but not Commissioner James Gordon, who is never mentioned). There's also Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a teenage pickpocket who steals this movie's MacGuffan - a diamond containing the serial numbers to the fabulous fortune of the Bertinelli crime family, the richest people in Gotham (not named Wayne). Finally, there's Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a vigilante murdering the criminals who executed her family like the Romanovs with a crossbow, and goes by the name Huntress. The running gag of Helena always trying to dramatically say her codename - "They call me..." and everyone cutting her off and calling her "The Crossbow Killer" is the best joke of the whole movie but also drags across the whole movie.
This is a lot of characters to juggle and it takes them for-fucking-ever to all get-together. Anyone going into Birds of Prey expecting Harley to be surrounded by a loyal girl gang that sticks it to the asshole men in their lives has to literally wait until the last 10 minutes for it to happen. Instead, each of the Birds of Prey is belittled, abused, and victimized ad nauseam by every character with a Y chromosome in the film (even Harley's kindly Chinese landlord betrays her for a wad of cash). Harley spends the length of the movie alternating between being a damsel in distress and a relentless fighting machine who can take out scores of thugs while high on cocaine. There's a little mentor-student stuff where Harley takes Cassandra under her criminal wing and there are fleeting references to how Harley owns a stuffed beaver she talks to (because she's crazy) and a hyena named Bruce (named after "that hunky Wayne guy") that nods to her comic books but falls flat in the film. There's also a lot of action, in that the movie basically delivers the same fight scenes 3-4 times where Harley (and later, with the rest of the BoP) acrobatically takes out legions of thugs with her signature baseball bat.
As the main character who's essentially a human Looney Tunes (she even watches Bugs Bunny cartoons while eating cereal at home), Harley Quinn is equal parts grating and irresistible - the latter can be attributed to the irrepressible movie star charisma of Margot Robbie and it's hard to see how this character could work anywhere near as well with someone else playing her. The other characters get little moments to shine but are underserved, comparatively; Dinah needed a lot more to do while Helena is mostly kept on the wayside and she doesn't even get to show her personality until the final minutes of the movie. However, the real embarrassment are the villains: McGregor is a disaster as Roman Sionis, playing Black Mask as a seething man baby that skirts towards Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever farcical. Just as awful is Chris Messina as Victor Zsasz, Sionis' skeevy, psychotic henchman who is apparently super into Roman but the movie doesn't really get into it. Zsasz is supposed to be one of Gotham's worst serial killers but he doesn't kill anyone in the movie. He does, however, get pickpocketed like a rube. Anyway, they're terrible villains and by the end, Batman will never even get to punch Black Mask in the face in this version of the DCEU. Overall, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) feels like too much of a good Quinn, but then again, Harley is never more relatable or endearing than when she's just trying to eat a breakfast sandwich.