Movie Review: Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Despite being panned by both audiences and critics, the 2016 film, SUICIDE SQUAD, was a huge hit for Warner Bros., taking in close to three-quarters of a billion dollars at the box office. That film introduced movie audiences to one Harleen Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, BOMBSHELL; ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD; MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS; GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN; I, TONYA; THE LEGEND OF TARZAN; THE BIG SHORT), the former clinical psychologist turned supervillain, and Joker’s main squeeze and partner in crime. Many people felt that Robbie was the best, and quite possibly only, good thing about that film, and perhaps Robbie did so too as she lobbied the studio suits for years to give Harley her own film. They’ve done that here with BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN).

Don’t worry if you haven’t seen SUICIDE SQUAD (and lucky you, by the way). You’ll do just fine with this storyline as Quinn reveals, in her complete whackjobby manner, some of her origin story, and brings the audience quickly up to speed by letting us know that she and Joker are no longer a thing. Most of Gotham City, though, hasn’t heard that she’s lost the Joker’s protection but, once they do, it’s Quinn Season with every goon in town going out to get her for one reason or another and, as an off-the-chain psychopath, Quinn has given them a lot of reasons for doing so. One of those who literally wants their pound of flesh is sadistic Gotham crime boss, Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, DOCTOR SLEEP; the STAR WARS franchise; AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY), but Quinn manages to convince him that she’ll be able to retrieve the precious Bertinelli diamond that was pinched from his clean-up guy and BFF, the even more sadistic Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina, TV’s THE MINDY PROJECT), by teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Quinn’s plan runs into a few snags, though, when Gotham Police Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, DO THE RIGHT THING) starts pursuing not just Quinn for blowing up a chemical factory, but also Sionis for being a general bad guy and Cain for stealing the diamond. Then there’s Sionis’ nightclub singer, the sultry Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, TV’s TRUE BLOOD) who wants to protect Cain from her boss, and Mafia crime family orphan Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, TV’s FARGO), who wants revenge on the people who offed her family years before. Got all that? When Sionis figures he’s had enough of everyone trying to thwart his evil machinations, the five women decide to team up and rid Gotham City of Sionis and his hastily assembled team of testosterone-filled scumbags, of which there are many.

While being vastly superior to its cinematic predecessor, BIRDS OF PREY is still one messed up film. It certainly starts off well as it dives headlong into Quinn’s mania but then the excitement peters off. Fifteen very flat minutes later, the crazy ramps up again only to see it go comatose for another ten minutes. This structure is repeated throughout the rest of film’s seemingly long 109-minute running time. Even Robbie seems bored halfway through and begins to phone in her performance after about an hour into the film. Director and former Hong Kong resident Cathy Yan (2018 Sundance darling, DEAD PIGS), and screenwriter Christina Hodson (BUMBLEBEE), tried to make BOP into a “DEADPOOL meets KILL BILL” proposition but it’s neither witty enough nor dark enough to match either film. This is the biggest problem with BOP. It needed to be darker than it was… like JOKER dark. Instead, the women gave audiences something that was ping ponging in tone throughout. Part of that may have to do with the studio-mandated edits. Word has it that the studio brought in JOHN WICK director and stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski last August to reshoot the fight scenes. It’s clear that his hand is there, though even they start to get repetitive after a while.

Sadly, it isn’t just the film’s tone that is all over the map. McGregor is completely miscast in this role. At times he is a psychotic murderer; at other times a pretentious and incompetent fop. I suppose he could be both if he has dissociative identity disorder but, if he does, that never comes out and you’d think that Quinn would have diagnosed him as such from the get go. She was busy diagnosing everyone else. As for Perez, oh, how the once-mighty have fallen! Or maybe she was bored too. Smollett-Bell and Winstead, on the other hand, are both impressive here but sadly underutilised. Both characters have the potential to have their own spinoff films but Warner Bros. seems to have shot themselves in the foot (yet again!) but not using them to their full potential here.

As for that aforementioned diamond, which is the key to this whole story, it is dealt with in such a slipshod manner that one has to wonder how much of the film ended up on the cutting room floor. The story wraps up so quickly that it seems that someone at the studio made the decision to keep the film under two hours no matter what.

Even with all the film’s unfantabulousness, BOP will still probably make at least three-quarters of a billion dollars at the box office. If you’re a DCEU fanboy or fangirl, you’re going to see this film no matter what I think of it. If you’re not though, you can safely give this film a miss and sleep soundly at night… or you can go see it and fall asleep in the theatre.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, February 7th, 8:30 am HK time!

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