‘Birds of Prey’ may not be ‘fantabulous’, but it sure is rowdy
Fantabulous is a bit of an overstatement for the sassy shenanigans in DC Comics’ Birds of Prey, but this spunky vehicle for the breakout star of Suicide Squad is remarkably honest about its own limitations. No one’s here for the Macguffin plot about a stolen gem. We just want femme mayhem.
BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN)
★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Cathy Yan
Written by: Christina Hodson
Starring: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor
Running time: 109 min
Enter Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, Ph.D, aka Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). The Joker’s demented former psychologist is also now, apparently, his former girlfriend. Why they broke up is anybody’s guess, but it’s not a stretch to imagine those two having an unhealthy relationship. Gotham City’s thugs tolerated her bone-cracking lunacy because that paramour status with the Clown Prince of Crime gave her immunity. And once Mr. J cuts her loose, everyone wants payback.
Maybe not everyone. Flamboyant gangster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) actually aims to enlist her as one of his henchmen. So he tasks Quinn with retrieving a 30-carat piece of bling called the Bertinelli diamond, a dazzling piece of jewelry that also improbably holds the engraved codes to a vast family fortune. Only problem is that wayward teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) lifted it from Sionis’ lackey, platinum-haired Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), before getting arrested herself for petty theft. If Quinn can get the diamond back, then her underworld protection is assured.
Complications ensue. That, plus a lot of first-person voiceover asides from Harley Quinn, more than a few narrative rewinds to explain a cockeyed plot, and enough slapstick brawling to fill an episode of Looney Toons. Add three more women for good measure: jaded police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), jaded crossbow killer Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and jaded chanteuse-turned-bodyguard Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Sionis menaces all of them, so their only option is to join forces and fight back. Wounded women unite! Not quite.
To its credit, Birds of Prey doesn’t pander to the sisterhood crowd. This quintet cautiously bands together, an uneasy alliance of their enemy’s enemies, and only parcels out compliments with begrudging admiration. The film gives off a dirty-dozen vibe, which is part of its punk charm. These are emotionally callused women who have already suffered a lifetime of slights and indignities with stoic verve. For them, earning someone’s respect is exotic.
Even more refreshing? No one has any magical superhero powers. Well, one person literally has a “killer voice,” a twist towards the end which hits a genuinely dissonant note considering the impressively low-tech, high-energy fighting that came before. The sheer creative gusto put into all that acrobatic maneuvering would make Jackie Chan proud. This is asymmetric hand-to-hand combat, where the smaller, physically weaker body uses torque, leverage and surgical strikes to best brute force. OK, yes, one of them also uses a crossbow. And a couple have the odd handguns. Plus a baseball bat and a mallet. But you get my point.
“Ooh, you’re so tiresome!” says Sionis before bitch-slapping Quinn across her face. He’s not wrong. Resting an entire movie on her psycho-lite shoulders gets weary, since Quinn’s personality consists of being moony over fried egg sandwiches and a hyena named Bruce (named after playboy billionaire Wayne, of course). Sionis is one to talk, though, considering his rough-sketch bio includes sadistic torture techniques, sartorial splendor and bi-curious affectations. His nickname is Black Mask, and the snug leather number he sports makes him look like a cross between a Mexican wrestler and an S&M gimp. Ewan McGregor does his best to liven up the flat villain, but there are only so many times he can yell “Woo!” before it just gets grating.
The music choices are a Spotify list of knee-jerk female empowerment songs, including “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” “Barracuda,” and an emo-ballad version of “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.” Birds of Prey is full of such low-hanging fruit, plus a tired fantasy remix of Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are Girls’ Best Friend” dance sequence that seems to know just how stupid it is. Loud, brassy, shallow, and self-aware enough to be kind of charming, this empty-calories cinematic sweet tart is a wink-and-a-smile self-own. “Sexy and bulletproof,” one badass motherfucker says to another. Pretty much.