On the plus side, Birds of Prey only needs to be better than its unmitigated disaster of a prequel, 2016’s Suicide Squad, to be considered a success. Though it’s definitely worse in the title department (with a ridiculous parenthetical like “…And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”, how could it not be?), Birds of Prey does manage to prove itself better (by only the slightest of margins, mind you) than not only Squad but the consistent barrage of complete crap (save for Wonder Woman) from DC Films.
Admittedly, that’s not saying much—which is appropriate, since Birds of Prey doesn’t say much itself. What seems like two solid hours of bloody fistfights is broken up only by Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) interrupting the film repeatedly to jump us back in time to earlier bloody fistfights. There’s a thin plot hidden somewhere in here (about a diamond and a vendetta and a guy who cuts people’s faces off), but it’s so tenuous that it’s not even worth diving too deeply into.
The general gist is that Harley has been jilted by her beau The Joker and that the abandonment also brings an abrupt end to all the protection his presence had afforded her. Every bad guy and undesirable in Gotham is now hot on her trail, making up for lost time. But don’t panic—it’s only for one scene, and then we never really hear about them again.
In the meantime, Ewan McGregor is chewing every last square inch of scenery as sleazy club owner Roman Sionis, who also masquerades part-time as a villain called Black Mask. But again, no need to worry about that—it only comes up briefly toward the end and for no apparent reason whatsoever.
In the meantime, Harley assembles a pseudo-squad around her, including the crossbow-wielding Huntress (a solid Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the super-songstress Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell)—who can cause a windstorm with her high C—and disgruntled Gotham detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, clearly out of her element). It’s a motley crew of comic (book) proportions, and though it’s great to give female anti-heroes time in the sun, I have to imagine that nearly everyone involved will be going out of their way to deny this project on their resume instead of standing behind it as a bastion of feminism and kick-assery. Credit Robbie, though, for eating up the role and throwing her all into it. She’s a super-violent kid in a candy store throughout and, despite a horribly grating Brooklyn-ese accent, manages to make it through the mess relatively unscathed.
The same can’t be said for screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee), who seems so entirely out of her element that it’s difficult to find much about the story that makes any sense whatsoever. Fortunately, Chinese-American director Cathy Yan, directing her first English-language feature, picks up the slack and makes Birds of Prey a relatively watchable exercise in senseless fisticuffs and beatings. There’s a little bit of art on display here, but as a whole, the movie can only be appreciated for its visual slickness.
It’s a damning compliment to be sure, but in the sense that one star is in fact better than zero, Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous—oh, who really cares?) is better than Suicide Squad. In the bigger picture, though, the film is a firm continuation of DC’s continued ineptitude. This thing just doesn’t fly.