My notes on Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
The awkward title suggests the major problem of this adaptation of DC’s female team book – previously a single-season TV show whose unmourned reality was wiped out in the recent Crisis event on the CW – gets stuck with. Besides introducing a collection of new characters, who aren’t exactly on the heroine A-list, it has to play as a sequel to Suicide Squad or at least a spinoff vehicle for the most generally tolerated survivor of that hot mess – Margot Robbie’s squeaky, tattooed, grating New 52 take on Harley Quinn, a character who’s been much better served as a toon than in live action since her debut on Batman The Animated Series in the 1990s.
In recent years, competing versions of the Batman’s home town have been seen in a slew of films and TV shows – and director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson have drawn a short straw by having to match this to Suicide Squad rather than, say, Joker or Gotham. Held over from the 2016 movie is a generally ghastly aesthetic: this is the most elaborately ugly comic book film since Joel Schumacher hung up his nippled bat-suit, and most of the cast sport horribly unflattering outfits. Cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), by virtue of not having to wear a super-costume, comes off best, but the revised thrift store tramp looks of Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Cassandra Cain/no one is ever going to call her Batgirl (Ella Jay Basco), and Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) are on a par with the trashy-yet-unimpressive, tatted-up, silver-smily Joker who is presumably still lurking offscreen here though no one wants to pay to have Jared Leto back and he’s probably still sulking about Joaquin Phoenix’s straining awards shelf.
Amid the visual noise, Winstead gives a subtle performance as the crossbow-wielding mob daughter so focused on her revenge list that she’s missed everything else happening in the world and has to be brought up to speed on costumed adventuring – her sly side looks and phlegmatism get more laughs than Robbie’s non-stop look-at-me-I’m-mad gurning, which is why it’s a shame she’s not the focus of the show. Harley narrates, explaining that she’s broken up with the Joker and is in a bad place about it, then the first act gabbles back and forth in time with enough freeze-frames and footnotes to placate Oscar voters confused by Little Women. Plot business revolves around a valuable gem with bank codes engraved on it which is sought by camp sadist mob boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and has been lifted by junior pickpocket Cassandra Cain. Dinah, a chanteuse with a vocal superpowers to remind you this is still a universe with super-folk in it, is half-in, half-out of Roman’s gang and being tapped as a CI by Montoya, who is a pariah in a male-dominated, inept police department. Now she isn’t the Joker’s girlfriend, Harley is fair game for dozens of people who want to kill her … but she has a few conscience twinges about Cassandra, who was swallowed the diamond, and half-heartedly tags along with the other birds to protect her.
DC have recently broken their post-Dark Knight bad streak with mostly successful, focused films – Wonder Woman, Shazam, Joker, even The Lego Batman Movie – but this is another of their throw-anything-against-the-wall-and-hope-it-sticks efforts like Batman v Superman, Justice League and Aquaman. It springs for decent action scenes, with imaginative fights and chases and use of props, taking cues from Harley’s spell as a roller-derby thug, and comes up with very Gotham City locales (a funhouse in an abandoned amusement park, a fogbound pier adorned with symbolic statues) … but too much of it is headachey shrill nonsense. At least the villain isn’t a CGI whirlwind, but McGregor’s version of third-string Bat-villain Black Mask is pretty desperate – he cuts off faces and rants to his minions, but you wonder how this idiot’s survived in a city with, say, Mr Freeze or the Penguin … let alone the barely-mentioned, presumably-busy-elsewhere Batman.
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