“Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” directed by Cathy Yan, isn’t nearly as cool as she wants it to be. However, the film has an infectious energy, mostly due to its performances.
The film, rebranded a few weeks into its release as “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” due to its poor box office performance, was always going to be either an embarrassing trainwreck or a fun, R-rated comic book film splattered with blood and glitter. Unfortunately, “Birds of Prey” meanders through most of its runtime, supporting itself only with the occasional gag or charismatic performance, leaving little else to elevate Cristina Hodson’s stale script. By the end credits, audiences are left imagining what a great film this could have been.
Ewan McGregor is a particular standout as the supervillain Black Mask, as his energy and line delivery sell his character. Margot Robbie continues to prove as she did in “Suicide Squad” that she is capable of balancing the chaotic neutral tendencies of Harley Quinn with just enough hot pink, confetti-laden girlishness to make the character entertaining without coming across as completely obnoxious.
This is not an easy task to accomplish considering the fact the character’s origins are straight out of a cartoon. But, like Ryan Reynolds’ role as Deadpool, Robbie truly loves playing Harley Quinn in all of her manic glory. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s role as Huntress is a welcome addition to the ensemble with her comedic stoicism (she has a great ongoing gag about her inability to effectively introduce herself to her enemies), though her character is criminally underwritten by Hodson’s screenplay.
Despite the solid casting and performances, the most disappointing aspects of “Birds of Prey” are its underutilization of its R rating and its failure to establish its own stylistic trademark. The film uses music, such as Heart’s “Barracuda,” in an attempt to give its action sequences a supplementary boost of panache. However, these scenes rarely possess the effortless coolness to match the music choices. The visual style is often lacking and would have benefited from a more distinct, personal touch from Yan.
Comic book movies have the advantage of not needing a valid reason to be hyper-stylized and perhaps a little ridiculous. Yet, Yan’s film lacks the bloody pandemonium that makes films like “Kick-Ass” so perversely delightful, or the ability of films like “Watchmen,” “Sin City” or “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” to recreate the distinct style of their graphic novel. Even Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy tapped into the director’s roots as a low-budget horror director. The reason “Birds of Prey” deserves to be compared to these films as opposed to a styleless “Avengers” film for instance, is Yan is clearly going for a very specific, stylized aesthetic reminiscent of the source material.
Despite the charisma of the performances, Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is surprisingly uninspired, as is a lot of the action, except for the entertaining final showdown in an abandoned carnival which sees the characters battling henchmen on rolling skates.
Overall, “Birds of Prey” is about 60 percent as entertaining as it could and should have been. The performances are solid all the way around and the actors are having an absolute blast playing their respective roles. The action is pretty mild and forgettable for an R-rated comic book movie about deranged criminals, and the script lacks even an ounce of personality. Nonetheless, dust off the choker you bought at Hot Topic and enjoy what little style this film possesses because it’s still worth experiencing.