A slapdash, roughly-sewn travelogue through the blood-stained, urine-soaked streets of Gotham that explicitly conjures images of 1980s New York City, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a total mess – – and totally charming, just the same. If last year’s Joker brought the filmmaking flourish of Martin Scorsese in the DC universe, Birds of Prey offers up more of a Lloyd Kaufman.
It feels strange to say that this $75 million superhero spinoff (and eighth official entry into the DCEU, a direct sequel to 2015’s Suicide Squad) plays out as a piece of guerrilla-style indie filmmaking, but that’s exactly how Birds of Prey feels. While the spirit of this R-rated movie matches that of Marvel’s Deadpool flicks, the go-for-broke approach is an even bigger departure from the usual superhero fare.
The most compelling element of almost every on-screen incarnation of Batman has been the villains, which made the failure of Suicide Squad such a disappointment. Its rogue gallery of villains was given precious little to do in the realm of villainy, save for one bright spot: Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang.
Okay, okay: it was Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn that gave most audiences whatever joy they could find in Suicide Squad, and she gets a chance to up the ante here. Robbie’s goofball sidekick makes for one of the most unusual of protagonists, but somehow manages to anchor the movie through stream-of-consciousness narration with all the coherence of a drunk at a bar telling a half-remembered joke.
Picking up where Suicide Squad left off, Quinn has split up with her Puddin’ for good and lets all of Gotham know it at the outset of Birds of Prey by blowing up the chemical factory that represented her relationship with Joker (Jared Leto’s take on the character is never seen, but often referenced here).
Bad idea: that sends waves of goons with grudges out for Harley Quinn, now minus the protection of her gangland beau, who must perilously navigate Gotham’s streets of rage with little more than luck and some keen fightin’ skills on her side.
But there’s more going on in Birds of Prey than Quinn’s sob story, as a story slowly starts to form around a quartet of other female protagonists: gangster’s moll Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), revenge-driven Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), out-for-justice cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who makes the unfortunate decision to swallow a diamond, setting Birds of Prey’s convoluted plot into action.
That diamond belongs to Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), primo gangster out to take over Gotham with his right-hand man Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). While the costume department doesn’t do these traditional Batman villains justice, McGregor and Messina both ham it up in overripe performances that match Robbie’s loony Quinn quirk-for-quirk.
There’s not a whole lot of depth to the other comic book characters, however: besides Harley Quinn, who feeds a creep to her pet hyena at the outset of Birds of Prey, the female protagonists are all of the do-gooder variety. As a whole, they serve as the film’s fill-in for Batman vigilante justice, but none gets enough screen time to create a truly memorable characterization.
But that’s not a problem throughout the first hour of Birds of Prey, which is a whirlwind tour of seemingly-random street happenings that jerks us back and forth in time and slyly creates a story in the background while distracting us with razzle-dazzle irreverence.
But when that story takes over during the final third, Birds of Prey suddenly becomes a lot less fun. An amusement park finale is nearly incomprehensible, a rote afterthought to watching the plot mechanics unfold onscreen; it pales in comparison to a previous action scene inside a police evidence room, which is quite wonderfully staged and choreographed.
Birds of Prey might be a mixed bag overall, but it’s a breath of fresh air coming after its predecessor, nicely building upon one of the lone bright spots in that turgid film. In fact, Birds of Prey does everything right that Suicide Squad did wrong – – everything except deliver a story we can really care about.