The best part of DC’s flawed SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) a few years back was Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn.
In short, she stole that movie, which wasn’t hard to do since the film wasn’t all that good, but that’s not to take anything away from her zany sexy performance as the Joker’s deranged girlfriend.
With BIRDS OF PREY (2020) Harley Quinn gets her own movie, and Margot Robbie gets to strut her stuff once again, this time without having to share screen time with those other Suicide Squad members. Now, I love Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn, but sadly, while BIRDS OF PREY might be slightly better than SUICIDE SQUAD, it’s not by much, and that’s because in spite of Robbie’s antics, the story is sparse, and the writing which is driven by Harley Quinn’s unhinged voice-over narration, just isn’t sharp or funny enough to make this one worthy of the Robbie’s performance.
In BIRDS OF PREY, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has broken up with the Joker, or as we find out, he has broken up with her, and she’s not taking it all that well. She also finds out that without the Joker’s protection, her enemies declare open season on trying to kill her. One of these enemies is the powerful Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who at present seems to be running Gotham’s underworld.
Sionis is also after a young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) who inadvertently swiped a valuable diamond from the pocket of Sionis’ right hand man Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). To save her skin, Harley Quinn promises to catch Cassandra and bring her and the diamond back to Sionis. But Quinn is not alone in her quest to find Cassandra. Also on her trail are Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and singer and newly promoted Sionis’ personal driver Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who’s working with Montoya to try to save Cassandra. Plus Sionis offered a reward for Cassandra’s capture, so there are a plethora of armed and dangerous heavies all competing for the cash prize for bringing Sionis Cassandra’s head on a platter.
And if that wasn’t enough, there’s this mysterious crossbow killer Helena Bertinelli aka The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who’s out and about taking down various villains in Gotham.
Eventually, these female warriors all end up together and join forces to protect Cassandra from Sionis’ clutches, calling themselves Birds of Prey.
Which makes BIRDS OF PREY one of those movies that drives me crazy, in that the entire movie seems a set-up for a sequel, which I find frustrating because it wastes the narrative of the present movie. A lot of films do this, and when they do, I always feel cheated.
Of course, I would have minded this less had the script been better. The screenplay by Christina Hodson is admirable for having its badass female characters beat the stuffing out of its badass male characters, although I’m sure this will turn off the same folks who’ve been complaining about other recent Me Too Movement movies featuring strong female leads, films like CHARLIE’S ANGELS (2019) and BLACK CHRISTMAS (2019). I’ve enjoyed these movies, and that’s not the reason I didn’t love BIRDS OF PREY.
The bad girls beat down the bad boys storyline I have no problem with. It’s the actual plot and the dialogue that I have trouble with. The story is just so-so, and it’s certainly not worthy of the Harley Quinn character. I would have much preferred a plot where she was driving the story, not reacting to Sionis’ threats against her. And the dialogue just isn’t as snappy and edgy as it needs to be.
Margot Robbie is excellent once again as Harley Quinn. That being said, I enjoyed her even more as Sharon Tate in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) and as Tonya Harding in I, TONYA (2017), and her performance here doesn’t quite have the same impact as it did when she first played the role in SUICIDE SQUAD. That’s not to take anything away from her, because she’s a terrific actress, and she’s clearly having fun playing Harley Quinn, but she’s not really given the opportunity to do more with the character here other than get more screen time.
Another notable difference this time around is that director Cathy Yan along with screenwriter Christina Hodson tweaked the character here and made her much less of a sex object. Gone are the scenes from SUICIDE SQUAD where Harley Quinn makes men desire her. In their place are simply scenes where Quinn kicks butt and stands on her own as a person. It’s a noticeable tweak, and not a bad one.
As a fan of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and I’ve been a fan since her role in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010), I was disappointed that as The Huntress she had very limited screen time. Of all the female leads, Huntress has the least impact, which is too bad, because Winstead is an exceptional actress.
I enjoyed Ella Jay Basco as the teen thief Cassandra Cain, as well as Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary. And while Rosie Perez was fine as Detective Renee Montoya, I thought her scenes with her fellow police officers were some of the most poorly written of the film. The dialogue was cliché and stood out like a sore thumb from the rest of the movie.
Ewan McGregor hams it up as villain Roman Sionis, who likes to have the faces of his enemies removed. Yeah, he’s not a nice guy, and his cruelty is somewhat out-of-place n a film that is largely high camp rather than dark superhero drama. I like McCregor as an actor, although he seems to jump back and forth between hits and misses, as seen with last year’s DOCTOR SLEEP (2019) where he was excellent as adult Danny Torrance, and CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) where he was meh as Christopher Robin. Here as Roman Sionis, he’s all over the place, but he succeeds in making the villain someone you simply can’t stand.
One of my favorite performances in the movie belongs to Chris Messina who played Sionis’ right hand man Victor Zsasz. Messina made Zsasz one creepy dude.
Director Cathy Yan keeps all the action and chase scenes as high-octane as they need to be, but there’s nothing overly memorable about any of them when all is said and done.
BIRDS OF PREY is an okay standalone film for Harley Quinn, and supposedly, it’s the first of three Quinn films in a proposed trilogy, but it’s hardly a game changer. In other words, after watching it, I’m not pining for the next film in the series. The script simply wasn’t sharp enough for that to happen. That being said, I’d still be happy to see Margot Robbiie play Harley Quinn again. I’d just hope she’d be in a better movie.
BIRDS OF PREY easily gets off the ground, but once airborne, hardly soars.