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Birds of Prey

**

by Matt Anderson

published February 7, 2020

In Birds of Prey, wit's flown the coop.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

This is one major missed opportunity.

It's disingenuous to try to spin Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn as an expression of girl power. Directed by a woman? Check (Cathy Yan, Dead Pigs). Written by a woman? Check (Christina Hodson, Bumblebee). Starring a woman? Check (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya). Starring more women? Double check (Rosie Perez, Do the Right Thing). Triple check (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane). It's a shame Elizabeth Banks had nothing to do with this one.

But this ultimately is an obnoxious movie with an obnoxiously long title. Just call it Birds of Prey.

At best, it's a flimsy excuse to showcase a group of aggressive women in a collection of violent situations; most of the time, they're the aggressors. Never mind Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) comes from Gotham City, the turf of Batman. This is a DC Comics property, but it's another Marvel wannabe. This one wants to be a female Deadpool.

It ain't. Sure, it's subversive. But there's no bite. There's no substance to the story that's as sheer and holey as Harley's fishnet nylons.

In short, Harley, recently released from her relationship with Joker, seeks to liberate herself. While meandering aimlessly around town, she riffs on her past, this, that and the other thing. She considers her career options. Life coach? Dog walker? Mercenary? Of course, trouble follows Harley like tomorrow follows today.  Trouble this time involves Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge!), who relishes in the thought of Harley having broken up with Joker. He doesn't want her for himself. He wants her dead to the world.

Roman's a gangster / nightclub owner / narcissist / questionable dresser. He hates Harley, who's been the source of so many of his grievances. In a rare bit of witty flair, it's revealed she "Voted for Bernie."

The Airing of Grievances

Bernie? The millionaire socialist?

Wait. Let's back up and explain what's going on here.

Birds of Prey is most definitely colorfully told. That's the filmmakers' sleight of hand, serving as a distraction from the flaky thin (and, really, flaky) story. There's a peppy soundtrack, loads of color, a chopped up narrative structure of flashbacks and flashforwards that — being generous — could be interpreted as a visual representation of Harley's scrambled mind. There's also flair in the introduction of key characters with their main deets appearing in animated, comic book-style frames. Among those details is the grievance driving the character's hatred for Harley Quinn.

Nobody likes her.

Nobody.

At times like this, a sympathetic character in Gotham is nowhere to be found.

Anyway, in the case of Roman Sionis, he has a lengthy list of grievances against Harley. They flash by as a rapid-fire laundry list. Among them, Harley voted for Bernie (blink and miss it, seriously).

That's also one of the movie's rare moments of attempting social relevance.

Well, that's the tangent about Bernie and grievances and this movie's style choices.

Homing Pigeons

Okay. Wait a minute. This still isn't gelling. Let's back it up even further and explain the troubled (and troubling) back story of Harleen Quinzel.

Harleen was one smart babe. She earned her Ph.D. and got herself a job as a psychiatrist at Arkham, Gotham's looney bin. There she met this creep named Joker and fell madly in love. Let's put a heavy emphasis on the mad. Their relationship was featured in Suicide Squad back in 2016.

In that messed up movie, Jared Leto's Joker was curiously inconsequential to the main storyline. The best thing to come out of the movie was Robbie's vivid portrayal of Harley Quinn. There was immediate excitement over the prospects of seeing her in a standalone venture.

Sadly, Birds of Prey is what we got.

Let's see. Is there enough "back" in the back story now?

How about the front story?

With Harley now back on the social market, there's a whole lotta swiping going on. That is, people are finally getting their chance to take a swipe at Harley now that she's no longer under the menacing protection of Joker.

As mentioned before, Roman has all sorts of problems with Harley and he wants her dead. But a deal is brokered. To spare herself, she needs to track down a spectacular diamond; etched within is information leading to the Bertinelli family fortune.

Where's the diamond?

Well. Sigh. It's in Cassandra Cain's gut.

Cassandra's a petty street urchin and master pickpocket. After swiping it right out of a Sionis henchman's pocket, she swallowed it. Her idea of a "safe" place.

That, in turn, leads to all sorts of bloodshed and mayhem. (This is most definitely not a kiddie comic book movie.) Perhaps the movie's main problem is the mayhem never gains momentum. The climactic battle, in an abandoned amusement park, recalls the Adam West days of "ka-pow!" and "ka-bam!" But it's leaden. There's no punch to the punches. Even seeing Harley in a car chase — with her "car" being a pair of roller skates from her roller derby days — isn't the thrill it should be.

Bye Bye Birdie

Here's some irony. In Suicide Squad, Joker was the weak link (most assuredly, not by design and not intentionally). Harley turned out to be the star and potential savior of the DC Cinematic Universe. But that was four years ago.

Several months ago, Todd Phillips released a solid revisionist take on Batman's arch enemy. That movie's accolades have swelled to a record-breaking billion-dollar global box office and 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor. That's a tough act to follow, relegating Harley Quinn back to also-ran status.

All of this makes DC's cinematic universe all that much more jumbled. Next year, there'll be another Batman reboot, which appears to be heading along a separate Gotham timeline from Joaquin Phoenix's Joker and Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn. Wonder Woman will be going strong this summer, but it looks like the Justice League is back on ice for now.

The shame of it all is there are plenty of interesting pieces being put into place here, in Birds of Prey.

One of Roman Sionis' henchmen is Victor Zsaz (Chris Messina, Cake). In Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, it's Victor Zsaz who kills Thomas and Martha Wayne. There's a Gotham PD detective named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who — not here, but elsewhere in DC land — becomes the Question, who in some storylines carries on a love affair with Batwoman. Throw in Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who in some DC-verses becomes an iteration of Batgirl. As for Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco in her feature debut), in other iterations, she has a much more interesting background and Cassandra becomes yet another version of Batgirl. Rounding out the Birds of Prey, there's Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, HBO's True Blood), who's alter ego is a crime fighter known as Black Canary.

As for Harley, taking a step to fill the void of Joker's absence, she buys a hyena and names him Bruce (after her fantasy love, Bruce Wayne). And she makes a clean break from that nascent band of do-gooders, the Birds of Prey.

All of those pieces. All that visual flair. But it all adds up to little more than bird feed.