At the very least, Birds of Prey had the potential to be fun. I felt this way before seeing it because it centers around the insane character of Harley Quinn and is steering more toward an adult audience. Of course, this allows for a certain amount of freedom that could give us something memorable even if it isn’t amazing.
After being dumped by The Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is in search of her independence. During her attempt to find that, she runs into some problems. At the center of her issues is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a mob boss many also know as Black Mask. He’s busy looking for a young pickpocket (Ella Jay Bascon) who may have his precious diamond. In crossing paths with him, Quinn also meets a few other women with their own separate agendas that will eventually bring them together and have them face-off with the narcissistic diamond obsessed villain who’s close to obtaining control of the entire city.
The tone and style in the early portions of Birds of Prey actually work and fit the lead character pretty well. This allowed me to see this as a film with promise in spite of DCEU’s horrendous track record outside of Shazam! (easily their best movie so far). The hardest part was keeping this tone going since this is only the opening act. As we soon find out, keeping this up would prove to be difficult.
A part of this because they’re constantly pausing (and sometimes backtracking) to introduce characters who don’t mesh well with the tone in the slightest. Whenever they introduce a new character, it feels like things pause for a bit. In some instances, they basically rewind and start-up from the beginning for this specific character. Then we sit there with this character for a while before jumping back to the present with Harley Quinn out of nowhere.
I’m guessing this was done to make things more stylish and maybe different, but it just makes the movie feel more uneven. It’s also one of the things that makes this feel longer than it is even though the actual run time is under two hours. That’s rare for this genre in this era, so a part of me wants to be thankful for that.
However, when you consider that there are also a number of scenes where there’s not much going on, Birds of Prey tends to drag a bit and doesn’t have enough substance to justify it being more than maybe an hour and a half. Together, these elements combine to make the movie less enjoyable. Maybe some people won’t mind, but I usually prefer well-crafted films that are more direct and efficient.
If I were going to look at any bright spot in this movie, I’d look no further than Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Once again, she reminds us that she’s one of the best mainstream actresses in the business at this time. The only complaint I would have about her performance is that the accent she had this time around isn’t anywhere near as strong as the accent she used in Suicide Squad while playing the same character. Other than that, she does all she can to work with the weak material that she’s working with.
As for the other characters, I wasn’t all that impressed with any of them. The best performer outside of Robbie may have been Jurnee Smollett-Bell. She’s nothing spectacular, but she’s not unbearable to watch or anything either. Out of all of the other supporting players, the weakest are Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Rosie Perez as Detective Renee Montoya, and Ewan McGregor as Black Mask. That’s something that I didn’t think I’d be saying.
After a few moments with each of these actors in their roles, I begin to feel like they were severely miscast. And as the movie went on, they did nothing to change my mind. For Winstead, she plays a character who’s supposed to be super serious and straight-faced, but she was really just boring. It got even worse when they tried to use her for comedy. She’s not in the movie that much, but I would have liked to have seen her a lot less than I had to.
And although she’s more important than Winstead in the film, Perez is just as bland and forgettable as her castmate. I can’t even remember much of what she actually does in the movie. She’s supposed to be a determined cop, but that’s her only real personality trait. Then again, almost all of the characters were very one-note and have no depth to speak of.
The most egregious error in casting was bringing on Ewan McGregor as Black Mask. He’s a good actor and over the years, has played a long list of various roles (including White Jesus I believe), but this role wasn’t for him. He portrays the character in an over the top and cartoonish way that never gives you the chance to take him seriously. In fact, he’s more comic relief (without the ability to make you laugh) than he is a villain.
Although it misses the mark in so many ways, this could have been fixed to an extent by making everything more balanced and providing us with a stronger story. Instead of doing that, they relied on a bunch of uncharismatic characters that were surrounding their one really good character. In my opinion, I see this as an opportunity wasted. They had the freedom to do all sorts of things, but this is all they could manage to come up with.
I think they were more focused on trying to make the characters look and act cool. In that sense, Birds of Prey reminds me of those horrible superhero movies that used to get back in the 90s. No one really thought you could produce high-quality art within this genre, so maybe this kind of stuff was seen as more forgivable back then. These days, it’s hard to say that we can’t expect more. As we’ve seen, with a little effort and some skill behind the camera, it can be done.
Outside of attempting (and failing) to make these Birds of Prey cool and hip, one of the only other things this movie really tries to do is make use of the R rating they were granted. They go all out with this stuff and that might work for some when it comes to upping the entertainment value, but there’s not much else here. I guess the “girl power” angle that it’s striving for will also help some, but that stuff isn’t important to me personally.
Not that it will matter to everyone, but I also have to look at the many elements that don’t make any sense at all. From the start, there are a ton of questions that go unanswered. As all of this stuff is happening, I kept wondering where Batman and his Bat-family was. You would think at least one of them would be around since we know they exist in this version of Gotham. It would have been nice if they could have tried to explain that, but they never even attempt to.
They also never try to explain how Harley Quinn got away from the Suicide Squad or where a person like Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis in Suicide Squad) is. She was a hard-nosed leader with a vice grip on that team, so I doubt she would just let them leave and walk around Gotham City like Harley Quinn is through most of this movie. She wouldn’t let them off the hook like this, but since that’s never brought up since they need this movie to happen. Maybe they’ll try to answer this in Suicide Squad 2.
Even if they do, there’s no real way to explain how Quinn is actually moving through Gotham City so nonchalantly. At times she’s literally walking around without a care in the world. That would be impossible to do when taking into account that she’s committed so many heinous crimes in this movie alone and is a most wanted woman. She also has a price on her head. That’s established pretty early in the movie, but that doesn’t seem to matter all that much either.
All of that only becomes worse when you look at the cringe-worthy comedy that’s included. It’s never really funny even though it could have been when considering who this movie is built around. And going back to what I said earlier, the tone was good at the start. Maintaining what was set up in the first act could have certainly made it easier to get some laughs. I guess funny jokes could have done that as well.
If you’re just going to see this for its mature rating, its feminist message, or maybe some of the characters, there’s a small possibility that you may be satisfied with what you get out of Birds of Prey. If you require even a little bit more than that, you’ll likely regret sitting down and giving this soulless piece of cinema a chance. That’s how I felt even before we reached the end credits.
Director: Cathy Yan
Writer: Christina Hodson
Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Ella Jay Basco
Film Length: 109 minutes
Release Date: February 7, 2020
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
- Score: - 3/103/10