Birds of Prey Flies Freely, but Goes Nowhere in ParticularMovies Reviews Birds of Prey
1. Birds of Prey has energy to burn; there is not a second that isn’t jam-packed with some sort of activity—not propulsive, but certainly jittery. Director Cathy Yan’s strategy for a DC Comics spinoff movie is to throw everything at the screen at once. There isn’t a single trick she doesn’t try on multiple occasions, from an out-of-order narrative, to random non sequitur narration, to wall-to-wall punk hits on the soundtrack, to freeze-frame scribbles on the screen. The movie is exhausting, but when we’re talking about the DCEU, we have been the victims of far worse. The movie bores you but, perhaps newest for this universe, it does not drain your will to live. One takes progress where one can find it.
2. Margot Robbie and Will Smith were the only tolerable (let alone understandable) parts of the otherwise wretched Suicide Squad, and now Robbie’s Harley Quinn gets her own movie. Quinn has just broken up with her boyfriend The Joker—who never shows up in the film, a relief if you remember Jared Leto’s performance—and learns, quickly, that he had been protecting her all those years. Now everyone wants their chance to try to kill her. First in line is Roman (Ewan McGregor), a crime lord in Gotham who has a penchant for expensive art, preening self-loathing and cutting off the faces of his enemies. He also wants a specific diamond for specific reasons that don’t matter, and when it turns up in the hands of a teenage pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco), the movie turns into an ongoing chaotic fire drill in which every character runs in circles until she runs into someone and then stabs them. The plot would be nonsensical and impossible to follow even if Yan didn’t run it out of order, but the disjointed story at least gives you the illusion that there’s something to figure out. Everything’s moving so fast that eventually you’ll either give yourself up to the ride or jump off.
3. Yan’s scattershot approach has its advantages, particularly with the room it gives for random asides (I loved when Harley threw her partner a hair tie during a fight scene) and a much lighter touch you ever find in Snyder-land. (It also helps that Robbie is not so schoolgirl-sexualized this time; Quinn is hardly a role model, but she’s not a fetish object for middle-aged comic strip artists anymore either.) It is worth noting that, with the exception of some excellent deadpan from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as an assassin named Huntress who shares a backstory with Batman but has far less fluency in modern culture, the movie isn’t particularly funny. There are a lot of quips and performative irreverence, but not a lot of, you know, jokes.
4. It is a testament to Robbie’s skill that she remains watchable playing a character who’s not particularly likable, though the faux-Bronx kiddie-girl accent she’s forced to put on is almost a cruel obstruction for an actress. The movie also gets lots of mileage out of an extremely welcome Rosie Perez as a detective whose male colleagues keep taking credit for her accomplishments. Lopez has been a force to be reckoned with in every frame for 30 years now. Winstead hits the right tone too, and the movie could honestly use even more of her than it has. As the heavy, McGregor has a few moments of divine inspiration—the mob don as neurotic pretty boy has its charms—but he, too, is working awfully hard to make a character pop despite there not being all that much to play. We should probably hate him more than we do, or laugh at him more than we do.
5. Look, in a world of Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad and Justice League, a movie like Birds of Prey can feel like a blast of cool air to the middle of your brain. There isn’t much more thought put into this movie than there was into those, but there’s a much more welcome sense of enthusiasm, of a director and cast getting to try something out and run like crazy with it. But there are a lot of things moving in Birds of Prey without any actual movement. Yan and Robbie and these Birds are able to fly free of the restraints that had been put on them in the past. You might just wish they stop flapping wildly all over the place, crashing into every corner of every wall, ultimately going nowhere in particular.
Director: Cathy Yan
Writer: Christina Hodson
Starring: Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Bosco
Release Date: February 7, 2020
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.