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CLIPPED WINGS: ‘Birds of Prey’ doesn’t fly as unique comic-book fodder

According to Anghus, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn is grating to watch, as her character goes from tolerable to agonizing.
Photo by Claudette Barius

 

Comic-book movies are hardly a rarefied commodity in our current pop-culture landscape.  In fact, one could say we are literally choking on all the adaptations Hollywood is cramming down our throats. It forces people like me, who see a ridiculous amount of movies each year, to regularly crap out capes and masks. The genre is producing so much content each year that even its variations are ridiculously tired. In order to stand out among the genre, filmmakers have to do something unique or exceptional. “Birds of Prey” is neither unique nor exceptional.  It’s a very average, occasionally entertaining action-comedy that manages to be competent but never compelling. 

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is the Joker’s sidekick and girlfriend, or, at least, she was before finally deciding to dump his clown ass and fly solo. She’s finding single life to be particularly thorny. First, there’s deep emotional scarring that comes in the aftermath of being in a toxic relationship.

Second, everyone Harley has ever pissed off in Gotham City now feel empowered toward revenge. That includes the psychotic Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), Gotham’s most petulant underworld personality, who enjoys basking in the opulence of the high life while cutting the faces off anyone who betrays his trust. He’s after a sparkly McGuffin—I mean diamond—with connections to a series of brutal mob murders and a massive fortune etched on the interior. When a precocious pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), steals the diamond, she becomes the most hunted person in the city, with every two-bit mercenary looking to cash her in for a huge reward.

Harley and Cassandra become unlikely allies as they attempt to navigate their precarious scenario. They run afoul of The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an assassin with her own motives, and Detective Renee Montoya (Rose Perez), a police detective trying to solve the case. The story is a pretty simple gangland tale with lovely comic-book-colored influences that are sometimes interesting but mostly inconsistent. There are wonderful attempts to make the Harley Quinn character and Gotham City seem bright and shiny, but a lot of it clashes with practical locations and backgrounds that look like unpolished downtown Los Angeles. It seems the filmmakers didn’t have the budget to go full spectacle, so they ended up with a weird visual dynamic that is both intriguing and totally lazy.

My major issue with “Birds of Prey” is how the audience never gets to know the half-dozen characters in the ensemble. There are no attempts to explore the heroes’ or villains’ inner depths; they are only fleshed out to a surface level. And the voiceover and exposition from Harley explaining things to the audience via meta-deconstruction made me wonder how many times words “like Deadpool” were used during the initial pitch.

I’ll give “Birds of Prey” credit for making an effort. There are some strong choices from director Cathy Yan (“Dead Pigs”), but most of them seem cribbed from other movies. There’s nothing original about the plot, story, characters or journey. Also, the protagonist is damn grating. Margot Robbie mugs and chews scenery in an annoying screech that ranges from tolerable to agonizing. During certain moments, I stared in bemused resignation at this highly praised and award-nominated actor; her choices confounded me. Frankly, I don’t understand the appeal of Harley Quinn or the need to give her an entire movie to carry. Frankly, her supporting cast has far more interesting stories that never get explored. In an effort to be all things to all people, “Birds of Prey” ends up being unappealing.

What I liked about the movie is the action, which manages to produce some entertaining and colorful set pieces. In fact, it could have used more. My feelings on “Birds of Prey” could be summed up by the great Elvis Aaron Presley: “A little less conversation, a little more action.”

DETAILS:
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn)
Rated R
Directed by Cathy Yan
Starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez

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