At the start of Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), the latest film from DC, Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie) is no longer with her beau the Joker. She is heartbroken and alone, and decides to mend wounds by drinking until belligerent. While in this state, she lets slip that she is no longer associated with the “Clown Prince of Crime,” a figure who strikes fear into the hearts of even Gotham’s most unhinged criminals. Without the Joker keeping them at bay, most everyone in the city wants to get even with Harley Quinn.
Along the way, there is also a MacGuffin involving a priceless diamond being stolen, a diamond whose owner is the megalomaniac Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). These two plotlines ultimately become redundant, as they converge so that everyone has two reasons to want Harley dead.
This redundancy makes the “emancipation” of the subtitle all the more pointed, as the premise of the Joker’s absence proves to be unimportant to the action plot. Being that Birds of Prey is an ostensible sequel to the massively successful yet critically panned Suicide Squad, the heavy inclusion of Joker’s exclusion feels a matter of distancing one film from the other. Harley Quinn is emancipated not so much as a function of her character but as a function of Birds of Prey staking out to be its own independent piece.
That said, the two films have things in common. Both films have a scrappy, frenetic energy to them. As I said in my review of Suicide Squad, this is both a benefit and a detriment. It is beneficial in that it is an admirably comics-esque approach to the characters of Quinn and Joker. It is detrimental when the zany, breakneck energy contributes to a breakdown of pacing and story structure.
Birds of Prey leans heavier on the benefits end of that equation, but it has the same pitfalls as its predecessor. Almost every scene is accompanied by a new, intrusive needle drop, and almost every one is intolerable (I think someone should be fired for approving that slowed-down rendition of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”). And Robbie’s disjointed, furious inner monologue voiceover gets to be grating quite quickly, even if the fact that the character can’t discern when the monologue stops and spoken words begin is a clever interpretation of her insanity.
Much of that voiceover is used to contextualize a non-linear narrative, which is a structuring choice used only to make a less-than compelling story look more compelling. In actuality, the plot itself is a basic gangster conceit with comic book characters mapped onto it. By jumping back and forth in time, the narrative preserves the mental instability of its title character, but it doesn’t make the story more intriguing. If anything, it flattens the story over time, as each plot beat reinforces the idea that the non-linearity was unnecessary.
Where the narrative fails, the style does occasionally rise up to pick up the slack. Director Cathy Yan and cinematographer Matthew Libatique craft a handful of fun action set pieces. The most noteworthy, involving what Harley Quinn dubs “the fun gun” in her one-person raid of a police station, makes fun use of color, props, and slow motion. However, these flashes of visual enjoyment disappear during the film’s climax, making for a deflating conclusion.
Birds of Prey: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)