While it is easy to point at Suicide Squad and look at what didn’t work but one almost universally accepted point of discussion was the impressive performance by Margot Robbie. Her version of Harley Quinn proved to be one of the emotional focal points of a film sorely lacking in characters to root for. This prompted Warner Bros and DC to move its fractured universe forward with Quinn at the forefront. Her follow up, the ridiculously titled Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn playfully reminds audiences of why this is a character worth following but much like Suicide Squad its a collection of warring themes and tones that never really work.
Following Quinn after her breakup with The Joker, she finds herself embroiled in a plot to find a diamond that local mobster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) needs. While she tries to track down pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) she crosses paths with three women all seeking something. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) wants Sionis, Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell just wants a little justice and Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead is out for revenge. Together they find that they might be able to get what they want if they work together. They just need to manage the crazed antics of one Harley Quinn.
Birds of Prey, which I will call it from now on due to the fact that the full title is long-winded and for lack of a better word dumb, isn’t your average comic book movie. Despite the coming to Jesus, film ending beatdown that feels tacked on, Cathy Yan’s film isn’t worried about trivial issues such as good and evil, as all these women are complicated, human and for most of the film’s runtime, unbelievably selfish. Yan seems to be most in tune with her characters when they are stabbing each other in the back.
The whole film feeds off of the notion that we can all contend with something toxic, whatever it might be, here it proves to be, very understandably in Harley’s case, toxic masculinity. McGregor is wickedly possessive with a psychosis that seems almost understandable, he is an abusive presence that is easy to compare to The Joker but also proves to be his own person. A quiet yet domineering Chris Messina, as Roman’s right-hand man Victor, further solidifies Birds of Prey’s message but oddly gives way to a loving bromance, a misogynistic double act that carries their scenes with distressing charm.
Quinn’s ragtag group of vigilantes, however, is a mixed bag, not from a casting standpoint as both Winstead and Smollett are intimidating presences but the film’s choppy, non-linear form of storytelling, thanks to Harley’s poor narration stalls any momentum the film has. Although it feels playful at first, the abrupt and oftentimes jarring cutaways to establish new characters brings a certain resentment to their presence as they feel like sketches, not vital pieces of a story. Winstead, in particular, is woefully underdeveloped thanks to a distracting and poorly constructed backstory.
While the idea behind Birds of Prey is enticing and the film has some terrific scenes interspersed within a light mesh of story beats, Yan feels constricted by a film too captivated by the idea of who these women need to be, not who they are. The frenetic energy she looks to give her adrenaline-fueled caper through Harley’s narrative gaze feels more like drunken ramblings instead of excitably psychotic. Although admirably gaudy and unique, with some jaw-dropping fight choreography and some decent belly-laughs, Birds of Prey seems to be let down by its unconventional, non-linear approach and the fractured mind of one Harley Quinn.