I apologize in advance for the information I’m about to exposit, because I’m fairly certain that many people have expunged this information from their memories in order to preserve their mental health. Unfortunately, I need to bring it up to provide context for the film I will be discussing today. That information is this: Suicide Squad is a movie that exists. From its stunningly poor direction, its abysmally written script, its awful attempts at characterization and world building and just plain boring execution, Suicide Squad is a flaming garbage truck of awful that results in a foul smelling explosion consisting of horrible decisions and the dying dreams of sick orphans. While scouring the aftermath of the disaster, DC Films noticed a glimmer of quality amongst the rubble, and that was Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn, which even I have to admit wasn’t half bad and held some promise for future films. Naturally, a Harley Quinn centered movie was put into the works, and the end result was Birds of Prey (for the sake of brevity, I won’t be calling the film by it’s full title from here on in), a raunchy action comedy that’s oftentimes amusing to watch, but is also plagued with qualities that make it messy and middling. I’ll take it over Suicide Squad.
Birds of Prey is the eighth film in the DC Extended Universe, and takes place sometime after the events of Suicide Squad. Harley Quinn, the Joker’s right hand woman and girlfriend, once again played by Robbie, has been unceremoniously dumped. She goes through the standard break up process: Eating and drinking a bunch, sobbing, partying the sadness away, cutting her hair, adopting a hyena, taking up new hobbies like roller derby and blowing up the Chemical Plant where she first professed her loyalty to the Joker. As Harley searches for “emancipation” as she puts it, she is inadvertently dragged into a botched diamond smuggling operation set up by gangster Roman Sionis AKA Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). Apparently, the diamond that Roman procured is embedded with account numbers that lead to the lost fortune of the Bertinelli crime family, who were murdered years ago. The diamond is stolen by teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), and Harley is tasked by Sionis to track Cain and the diamond. Things get messier however, as Harley runs into more people who have also become involved with Sionis and the missing diamond. These include Renee Montoya (Rosei Perez), a cop who’s trying to build a case against Sionis, Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollet-Bell), a singer at Sionis’ club who inherited a hypersonic scream superpower from her mother and the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a mysterious crossbow-wielding vigilante with an unknown agenda.
As the parenthetical portion of the film implies, there is a theme that ties all the main cast together, and that is the concept of emancipation, or to put it more simply, independence. These “Birds of Prey” have all had an experience or experiences that have made them uncertain of their place in the world. It’s a nice theme to work with, but the only person that the movie seems to be interested in developing that idea with is Harley Quinn, who gets the most character development out of the entire cast. I certainly understand why. Harley Quinn is a very funny, charming and even cute character in this film, and she steals the show much like how she did in Suicide Squad. But with so much focus on Harley, the film drags its feet on the rest of the cast’s development. The personalities of the supporting cast are very one note and the connective tissue that makes up their character arcs are extremely weak. Honestly, this movie should have been called Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey. Harley’s the most important and fully realized character, and everybody else is just kind of there. And even more frustratingly, the titular “Birds of Prey” don’t even get together until the last 30 minutes of the film for the big climactic fight scene, so the title feels like a slight misnomer, and the group dynamic feels woefully underdeveloped by that point.
Black Mask is another character who is negatively effected by the films heavy focus on Harley. While McGregor is clearly having a lot of fun as this psycho crime lord who enjoys cutting people’s faces off and even has one or two funny lines, but he’s a villainous character type that I’ve seen before in better movies. He fulfills the same purpose as Andy Garcia’s character Terry Benedict from Ocean’s 11. The main cast are thieves and murderers, but you feel more comfortable siding with them because of how much worse the main antagonist is. It’s a neat storytelling trick, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a fascinating villain. At the end of the day, he’s just a guy you want to see get punched in the face. Ocean’s 11 had the luxury of the main cast consistently interacting with each other via very strong and witty dialogue, but Birds of Prey doesn’t have nearly enough of that to support its story and characters, especially its villain.
Another issue I have with this movie is actually something I feel a little bad about criticizing, because I can understand why they made this choice. The film is told from the perspective of Harley Quinn, with voice over narration from the Maiden of Mischief herself cutting in at various points in the movie to explain a plot point or make a wisecrack. She also recalls the events of the film in an out of order fashion, so she’ll recount one event, and then she’ll essentially “rewind” or “fast forward” the movie to explain how we got to that event, sometimes from a different character’s perspective. This schizophrenic approach certainly befits Harley’s unhinged personality, so I certainly don’t hate the idea. The problem is that the story itself doesn’t necessitate this storytelling method. At its heart, Birds of Prey is a very simple and familiar story. A pickpocket steals a diamond belonging to a crime boss, and everybody rushes to find it. It’s a setup we’ve seen before a million times, and I feel that this frenzied viewpoint befits a movie better when there’s a lot more going on in the plot. While I appreciate the filmmakers trying to stay true to the character’s perspective, there’s no good reason why Birds of Prey needs to be told in such an overcomplicated manner, and it annoys more than it entertains. This isn’t Memento, guys. Calm down.
I’ll give the movie this though: The choreography and action scenes are superb! They’re done by the stunt and choreography team that did John Wick, but there’s a bit of a fun twist to it. Like John Wick, the choreography for Birds of Prey draws some inspiration from Hong Kong action cinema with its fast movement, attention to detail and unique fighting styles for each character. While John Wick took inspiration from films like John Woo’s The Killer, Birds of Prey takes its tone for its action scenes from Jackie Chan movies with a dash of Looney Tunes-esque slapstick, since the beatings are delivered comedically, and often show the characters using their wits, dexterity, improvisation skills, and just plain dumb luck to try and fend off their foes. And despite the cartoonish nature of some of these beatdowns, like Harley throwing a bowling ball at a henchman’s nether regions or the Birds of Prey fighting off a mob of goons with giant plastic hands that are affixed to a spinning platform, there’s a real sense of “oomph” to the action. Birds of Prey even manages to bring its own contribution its Martial arts movie fight scenes the only way a comic book movie can: With color! There’s a great scene where she raids a place station with a beanbag shotgun that also shoots glitter and bright blue and red smoke bombs, and it makes for a very colorfully entertaining set piece. All and all, as a martial Arts film buff, I approve!
Despite the fact that 75% of this article is me ripping the movie to shreds, I should clarify that I don’t hate it. It’s a narratively flawed ensemble film, but it has some great action beats, a distinct visual style, a flavorful and explosively entertaining main lead, and while I wouldn’t quite call the comedy and dialogue hilarious, they are often amusing at the very least. I feel like this movie could have been a lot better in certain ways, but like I said at the beginning of the article, at least it’s not Suicide Squad.