Review: Harley Quinn / Birds of Prey
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (original title)
As a continuation of Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey fails to give the audience what the earlier film did. The 2016 film was plagued by a lot of the same problems this 2020 offering has: jumpy editing, a sound track crammed with too many pop-tunes, and the flat unreality that superhero movies absentmindedly fall into when the fists and the kicks start flying. Birds of Prey borrows from recent action films but adds little that is new to the genre. Even Margot Robbie's Harley is at best only a continuation of the Harley from Suicide Squad. Other than a prologue about her romantic break-up with the Joker, there is little progression by the end of the tale.
The irony is that Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn was the heart of Suicide Squad (along with Will Smith as Deadshot), and despite the fouled-up story construction in that film, the characters (courtesy of a good cast) triumphed over the impediment of everything else (which may be from DC/Warner's meddling with that movie after director David Ayer made his cut. Supposedly Ayer's cut was darker and less "funny"). Harley (or that is, Margot Robbie) stood out in Suicide Squad, one reason being her contrast to the mostly male team she was partnered with. In Birds of Prey the situation is reversed and the contrast is gone.
The hyperkinetic style of Birds of Prey and its script doesn't compensate for all of this like Ayer's script did for the earlier film. Instead, here in Birds of Prey is a circular time-swapping storytelling that might have been an initially clever attempt to express the ADHD personality of Harley Quinn by her explaining things to the audience (she narrates parts of the tale), but instead the end result is fragmentation of the storytelling with a narrator butting in trying to straighten out what the movie-watcher shouldn't have to be wrestling with if the director was telling the story coherently. It isn't the ticket-buyer's job to decode the story progression.
In Birds of Prey, there's too much humanity missing, and in the main character particularly. Where Suicide Squad presented her as a person trying to deal with a struggle for self-responsibility (and thus independence) in Birds of Prey she is a garbage-littering juvenile who has flashes of epiphany about herself, but then it gets buried under the tread-mill plot and a tone of nihilism.
Robbie aggressively attacks the screen, as if she's trying to pull along the whole movie by herself, a berserk salesman determined to close the deal with the audience. She dominates the presentation of Birds of Prey like no one else, though Ewan McGregor tries to balance the film with a psychotic Black Mask as the nefarious villain. He's not given enough room to achieve this, though. It's as if Birds of Prey was supposed to be a team movie (hence the title) but it veered sideways into a solo spotlight. If the script had been a symmetrical division between the two characters of Harley and Black Mask maybe it would have helped improve things. Well, who knows.
A certain amount of unwelcome sadism infiltrated this movie. Chris Messina as knife-wielding henchman Victor Zsasz provides us with the visual of a family being murdered by having their faces removed via his blade (one of the family is apparently a child or teenager). With that sort of element in the story, you'd think by the end there'd be an eye-for-an-eye retribution on Zsasz to balance the earlier grisly killing of the family, but nope, the sadism of that earlier killing is in the story as decoration. At the least it should provide pressure on the audience to fear Zsasz doing these crimes to our heroes, but this isn't achieved, though it is mimed into other scenes. So, what was the earlier gore added for? To help get the R-rating? I don't know.
Besides imitating Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey also ends with a swipe from hitman movie The Professional and that film itself is borrowing it's ending from other earlier stories, too, but it's smart enough to integrate it deep into the story so that it works effectively. That isn't the case with Birds of Prey.
The ending for Birds of Prey made me wonder, in this beating of the bad guy (which also has another ridiculous flash of sadism to it), was this really all they had in mind when they started production on this film? Because, minus the CGI, it comes off as the end scene to any old TV cop show just going through the motions, not an anticipated, well-hyped superhero film capitalizing on the growing stardom of both a comic book character and a rising actor. It isn't an anti-climax but it isn't a decent climax either.
Disappointing scripting, dialogue that isn't exactly illuminating (though McGregor and Robbie try to pull whatever they can from their lines, still it is mostly mundane stuff they're saying), and the onslaught of pop tunes, songs so buried into movie sound effects you can't make out the words being sung, which simply makes no sense since this alienates the audience not familiar with the song to know how it connects to what we're watching, the end result being more distracting detritus in a film that's already distracted with itself. It's like throwing confetti at the screen, hoping something connects with the audinece.
Margot Robbie is fun to watch as she goes through the paces of showing us the crazy mind of Harley Quinn, and McGregor is good when he is allowed to be on the screen. Rosie Perez (as Renee Montoya) is also good, and even though she is given more room in the film than many others, Birds of Prey would have benefitted from more. These actors tend to be eye magnets, but somehow the style of this film works against the actors, as if they are in some way peripheral to the style of the movie which is given center stage and cast over characters and story.
Art direction is very good, Birds of Prey being one of those films that looks so much better than it really is. Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin had sort've a similar color scheme and made it seem dismal, but Birds of Prey is the opposite, making neon interesting instead of deadening. If only the script could have had the same skill. The direction should have been less frenetic, letting Harley be frenetic instead of the two things competing against each other.
Compromised between human and carnival, Birds of Prey somehow lacks heart. I believe the cast was short-changed by the script.
Original Page October 2019