GREG'S GRADE: C
"I'm a terrible person, I guess," Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) says late in "Birds of Prey" — full title: "Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn."
She's not wrong.
The longtime partner of the Joker, in both romance and crime, Harley Quinn — real name: Harleen Quinzel — is a psychopath who gleefully bashes in her opponents' heads and limbs with a baseball bat, or any other weapon she can get her hands on. Her word is meaningless, and she wouldn't think twice about killing even a young girl if it were in her best interests.
And we're supposed to root for her?
Robbie, who, in a go-for-broke performance, gives Harley a childlike demeanor and unending cheeriness, makes the character a lot more likable than she should be, based on the things she says and does.
Is that a problem?
Many were concerned about the potential impact of last year's "Joker" — which, for the record, is unrelated to "Birds of Prey" — but rather than glorifying the homicidal actions of its central character, that movie issued a powerful statement about how our society has failed the mentally ill. Harley Quinn is no less sick than Arthur Fleck — once a psychiatrist, she was driven mad through the course of her abusive relationship with the Joker — but "Birds of Prey" plays her fractured mind for laughs. And audiences, no doubt, are expected to cackle with delight at the very R-rated violence.
While "Joker" effectively emulated '70s-era Scorsese, "Birds of Prey" desperately wants to be the next "Deadpool," sardonic narration, nonlinear structure, cartoonish gore and all. But despite Robbie's heavy lifting, it so obviously lacks the sharp wit and biting sarcasm of Ryan Reynolds that made "Deadpool," and its sequel, such a hoot.
"Birds of Prey" does boast a lineup of powerful women, which is something to celebrate.
Harley Quinn's erratic behavior has earned her a long list of enemies, most of whom — even more despicable and bloodthirsty than she is — want her dead. Her recent breakup with the Joker means there's no longer anyone standing between them and her. (That sound you hear is the movie bending over backwards to justify all of Harley's killing and leg-breaking.) Enemy No. 1 — for a variety of reasons — is sadistic underworld boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, hamming it up every change he gets), aka Black Mask.
Circumstances eventually lead to Harley teaming up with Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer at a club Sionis owns who gets an unwelcome promotion to being his personal driver; the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who's out for revenge after watching the massacre of her entire family as a child; and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a Gotham City police officer.
The plot — a bunch of people want Harley Quinn dead, and Sionis is after a diamond stolen by young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) — somehow manages to be simple and convoluted simultaneously. Directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson, the movie bursts with energy and, in stark contrast to the rest of the dreary DC Comics Extended Universe, is awash with color. If the action choreography were half as playful as the sets, costumes and characters, we might be onto something here.
"Birds of Prey" is "The Godfather" compared to the putrid though Oscar-winning (for makeup and hairstyling) "Suicide Squad," which introduced Robbie as Harley Quinn in 2016. However, fun though it may be at times, it's a problematic film that can't be saved by its enthusiasm alone.
Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material. 109 minutes.
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