Director: Cathy Yan
Writer: Christina Hodson
Starring: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor,
After breaking up with the Joker (and therefore no longer having his protection), it becomes open season on Harley Quinn (Robbie), with every thug and crime lord in Gotham after her – including narcissistic crime boss Roman Sionis (McGregor). To save her own skin she offers to help Sionis retrieve an invaluable diamond, but in the process forms an unexpected allegiance with some other female citizens of Gotham, who all try to save a young girl from Sionis and destroy his crime empire once and for all.
Okay, let’s get this film’s full title over with: Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn – there you go. That is the one and only time I am going to write this film’s stupid full title in this review, and it is an intentionally non-catchy title that pretty much sums up the film. All involved seem to desperately want this to be some kind of feminist version of Deadpool, complete with self-referencing voice-over, a 15 rating and a supposed anti-hero as the protagonist. However, it predominantly does not work, and really should have tried to do its own thing.
A fair bit has been made about the fact that Birds of Prey is a big budget film directed by a woman, written by a woman and has a predominantly female cast. This is of course a good thing, but an unfortunate fact is that despite Margot Robbie’s obvious passion for her character, it is just not a very good film and in no way a representation of the vast array of female talent that currently exists in the film industry.
One of the film’s main issues is its script, which is very disappointing considering screenwriter Christina Hodson wrote Bumblebee – a film that invigorated a tired franchise and was in my view the second best of the Transformers films. It is a very flat script that not only delivers some misguided messages, but lacks coherence, focus or genuine humour. There is a desperate attempt to make us route for the protagonist, but the undeniable fact is that Harley Quinn is a crazed psychopath who has done some extremely bad things in her life, and the constant reminders that she has a PhD combined with lazy and clichéd character arcs involving her coming to terms with a breakup or befriending a young pickpocket can ever make her character either likeable or interesting enough to carry a film. The fact that she may have done some of the (very) bad things that she did in her life because of the influence of her rather famous boyfriend is just very cheap and lazy, and not enough to make us suddenly route for her now that she is on her own, as she is still an intolerable psychopath that I really do not want to spend 109 minutes with.
Though the intentionally messy narrative that goes backwards and forwards (in Harley’s words in the clunky, exposition-heavy voice-over; it is her story, so she will tell it how she likes!) does not help matters in what is an extremely minimal plot anyway that involves the classic macguffin – some fancy diamond that holds the key to the fortune of a wealthy (and dead) family. The film never really finds any flow, and it is often unnecessarily hard work to watch. What also doesn’t help is that the script picks and chooses when it wants to be part of the DCEU (DC Extended Universe); it is obviously very much connected to the events of Suicide Squad, references both The Joker and Bruce Wayne / Batman (Quinn names her pet hyena after ‘that hunky Bruce Wayne guy’) and the narrative features some classic Gotham locations such as Ace Chemicals and Amusement Mile. However, neither the caped crusader or the clown prince of crime show up at any point, and considering some of the events of the narrative, their absence does feel a tad unbelievable.
Likewise, most of the characters are poorly developed; Though I would argue that the film’s supposedly feminist messages are not quite as overt as some have suggested, the fact that every male character is a two-dimensional sleazy scumbag is very lazy and disappointing. The tendency for the female characters to resort to kicking their male opponents in particularly painful places also gets tiresome very quickly. The main antagonist of the film is Ewan McGregor’s crime lord Roman Sionis / Black Mask, but his character is just a two dimensional and forgettable villain that is neither interesting nor convincing. This is not helped by Ewan MacGregor’s outrageously theatrical performance in which the script’s attempt at humour sometimes make him act like some kind of spoilt child, but instead of producing any laughs they are just cringe inducing.
The rest of the film’s characters are actually all potentially interesting and likeable, with redeeming characteristics, likeable qualities and interesting backstories. However, as the film is all about Harley Quinn (that was probably one of the main terms of Robbie’s contract – she is producer after al), their stories never get developed to any kind of satisfying level, and the actors never really share any kind of genuine chemistry with each other. Meanwhile, Robbie certainly enjoys herself as Harley Quinn, after starring in some heavier films recently she probably feels she has the right to just chew scenery and be as over the top as possible. However, she was just about tolerable in small doses in Suicide Squad, but as the protagonist of her own film, her portrayal of Harley Quinn gets very annoying very quickly.
A patchy plot and slightly unlikeable protagonist may be forgivable if Birds of Prey were a genuinely funny and enjoyable romp, but the attempts at humour just constantly misfire in a rather cringe-inducing way – and no amount of self-referencing can make up for that.
Admittedly Birds of Prey does have some redeeming features; Cathy Yan’s direction is very energetic and certainly captures the manic tendencies of the protagonist, meanwhile Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is as equally colourful as Quinn’s dress sense. Some of the action is also well-staged; and even though some of the fight scenes do verge on repetitive and boring (one woman with a mallet vs a huge gang of goons with guns features a few times) there are some good moments like the scene in which Harley breaks into a police station (that has no commissioner Gordon) with a grenade launcher that shoots grenades loaded with colourful non-lethal ribbons, or the film’s finale set in Amusement Mile. One particular standout moment is when Harley hands a hair band to Black Canary mid-fight – this amusing and unique moment serves as a reminder to what kind of film Birds of Prey could have been, but sadly it has to go down as a missed opportunity.
An incoherent mess of a film that seriously fails to justify asking us to not only spend 109 minutes with its protagonist, but also actually route for her; Birds of Prey is a film with many problems, but its main one has to be an incredibly poor script.