“Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” Movie Review


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     When you are producing a spin off of a film like “Suicide Squad”, the bar isn’t set very high in order to match or surpass its overall quality.  So I’ll begin by saying while director Cathy Yan’s follow up “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey" certainly has a number of artistic merits thanks primarily to a feisty performance by Margot Robbie, the film suffers from an overused boiler plate superhero story that has become all too familiar.  And if the main draw here is meant to be the fact our anti-heroes are all women, than the filmmakers left quite a bit on the table as far as creating an original story for them to tell.  All that said, the film does manage to surpass its predecessor.

     There is wall to wall action, hyper kinetic fight sequences, and colorful imaginative sets to feast your eyes on, but once the movie ends and you walk out of the theater, you’ll probably forget you were there in the first place, or even more likely, confusion will set in a day or two later when “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” and virtually every other superhero film you’ve seen in the last ten years begin to blend.  Aside from Harley herself, I doubt any of these characters will resonate enough with mainstream audiences for them to even remember their names.

     “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” starts with an elaborate first act that both brings us up to speed on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker’s recent break up, as well as the back stories of some of the main characters, including mob boss bad guy Roman Sionis, played by a hammy over the top Ewan McGregor.  It turns out Harley has quite a few people around Gotham who have a score to settle with her for everything from breaking various parts of their bodies to stealing from them.  And now with the word out of her relationship’s demise, she must reinvent herself in order to survive.  Of course, as we already know, she is well equipped to take care of herself.

     Various characters on both sides begin to converge when a street level pick pocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), lifts a valuable diamond off of one of Roman’s henchman.  Now Harley, along with a cop working the case, Renee (Rosie Perez), Roman’s driver Dinah (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a vigilante seeking justice against the mob named Helena (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), find themselves ensnared in a hunt for the diamond with Roman and his army hot on their tails.  Along the way, we are treated to the group’s expansive repertoire of martial arts influenced fighting skills, most of which are rudimentary, yet effective in these circumstances.  

     Taking a cue from its R-rated counterpart, “Deadpool”, the action features slit throats, broken legs, and even the complete removal of faces, and yet there is always the feeling we have seen all of this before.  It is no longer a novelty to insert female heroes into ass kicking fight sequences with so many notable (and better) films having depicted the same.  “Kill Bill” anyone? “Atomic Blonde”? What about “Wonder Woman”?  There is nothing in “Birds of Prey” that will come across as anything more than standard fight choreography with Harley and company positioned to dispatch multiple assailants with demonstrative ease.  

     If Cathy Yan and her screenwriter, Christina Hodson, had not given in to so many over utilized comic book movie tropes, and instead explored their main characters in greater detail, sans the unnecessary action, they might’ve had something.  Remember, DC is coming off doing exactly that with “Joker”, but the tone of this one seems to be right at home within the realm of “Suicide Squad” instead, which results in the film suffering greatly overall.

     One thing that helps “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” remain watchable is the work of production designer K.K. Barrett, whose depictions of everything from the streets of Gotham itself, to the bizarre confines of Harley’s apartment, and the setting of the finale, all bring forth a catchy visual style that ensures practically every scene really pops.  Yan’s editors, Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff, contribute greatly to the frenetic pacing, as well as the insertion of various backstories at key moments.  These aspects of the film are huge since the characters outside of Harley are bland and boring.  In fact, Dinah and Helena are given nothing of substance to do at all (No, shooting people with a crossbow does not count.).  And the Rosie Perez character, Renee, often remains in the back drop as a stereotypical cop burnout whose best attribute is spewing lines from 80s cop movies.  There isn’t anything about these side characters who make you want to see them again.

     What’s really confusing is how does all of this play in the bigger picture?  Or is DC even thinking in those terms anymore?  There really isn’t any possible connection between “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” and “Joker”, particularly given the events of “Suicide Squad”.  And one has to wonder where the rest of the “Justice League” fits in as well.  Will the upcoming 2021 film “The Batman” from director Matt Reeves exist within its own world, or the ones created in “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” and “Joker”? What about “Shazam”?  There seems to be so much untapped potential here, but with no real “End Game” to look forward to, what’s the point?  GRADE: C