It takes a strong woman to tolerate their ‘solo’ movie upstaged by introducing something new and in this sidequel to the 2016 misfire of “Suicide Squad”, Margot Robbie’s motormouth manic depressive pixie scream girl has a lot of introductions to put up with. But none are quite so striking or linger in the mind quite as long as the undisputed star of “The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel”“Birds Of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn”: Sal’s Bacon, Egg & Cheese sandwich. Yes, you may have been expecting this to be a story of one five women’s struggle to throw off the shackles of misogynistic oppression and claim their independence in a Gotham city gone mad but in fact, it’s a simple story – a tale as old as time – of girl meets sandwich, girl loses sandwich, girls brings down a vicious underworld empire, girl wins sandwich back again.
Having broken up with ‘Mistah J’ (Jared Leto, not pictured), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is on a cleansing bender when she realises what she needs is closure: spectacular, explosive closure. Unfortunately, in closing the door on her relationship with The Joker, she also closes the door on his ‘protection’ from rival gangsters and other unsavoury characters who seem drawn to the mean streets and lax policing of Gotham City. Enter Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) who has his sights set on dominating the city with the help of a missing diamond.
Approaching this, DC must have been keen to avoid repeating the mistakes of past movies and, at least, maintain the growing but still fragile box office momentum created by “Aquaman” and “Shazam!” after “Justice League” squandered much of the goodwill of “Wonder Woman” and while it’s broadly successful in not screwing it up Squad-style, it still staggers through too many missteps for a film series on its eighth instalment.
Margot Robbie is still a magnificent casting fit as Harley Quinn and, given the whole movie is told from her point of view, she makes for a marvellously unreliable narrator for this most unreliable of franchises. It’s a fragmented, non-linear and often disassociative approach to storytelling that cleverly covers a multitude of sins under the guise of kooky Harley Quinn-isms. The problem is it pushes the kookiness a little too far and into fourth-wall-breaking territory that sits uneasily alongside some of the darker turns the wildly variable tone takes. Harley Quinn is many things, but she is no Deadpool and the movie’s attempt to ape “Deadpool 2” is not a smart choice
Christina Hodson’s screenplay has a lot of work to do and while it kind of gets the job done, there’s very little elegance or grace to it. There are frequent non-sequitur gaps between action and results where characters simply disappear with no explanation only to be present once again when the story requires it. The attack on Quinn’s apartment is a particularly glaring example of appalling attention to any kind of continuity.
Quinn takes up most of the screen time, edging out those DC characters making their big-screen debuts. The Huntress (a criminally underused Mary Elizabeth Winstead)’s back story and activities are mainly and dismissively played for laughs and her arrival at the grand finale smacks of being an afterthought when the plot kind of forgets her. Jurnee Smollett-Bell, likewise, brings a fantastic intensity to the underwritten and underserved role of Dinah Lance/ Black Canary while Rosie Perez’ Renee Montoya and Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain are reduced to, ironically, paper-thin versions of their comic book counterparts, trading almost on name recognition alone.
In fact, that’s a constant problem in a film overcrowded with introductions – it relies too much on the audience knowing who these characters are to ink and colour in the brief sketches the movie offers. We know that Roman Sionis is a bad dude (Ewan McGregor hasn’t been this hammy since the “Star Wars” prequels) and that his henchman Victor Sazs is possibly even worse, but we never really get to know what his deal is. There’s a lot of effort put into telling us who people are, but not really why we should care. You may come out of “Birds Of Prey” feeling like you’ve been handed a lot of home learning to do; the film may not have a post-credit scene (at least not one worth waiting for the final credit to fade) but it does feel like it has a reading list. DC still haven’t got the hang of not catering to the ever-narrowing audience of comic book aficionados, hence the multiple personality disorder the film seems to suffer.
I get in these silo’ed times that this movie, ostensibly themed around female empowerment and giving a man’s world a kick in the goolies, may not be meant for me, and that’s fine. But just who is this movie meant for, then? It’s wildly inconsistent in tone, but not in a clever or subversive way, just in a clumsy scattergun way. You’ve got cutesy comedy sitting uncomfortably cheek by jowl with surprisingly grisly and sadistic gangland executions and while the abandoned funhouse set-piece battle at the end is borderline “Batman ‘66”, this is still a movie with an insanely high body count and a lot of swearing. Not because the story or characters or even the tone (whatever level it’s at, at any given moment) require it but because it’s a necessary tickbox exercise to achieve the pre-ordained (and ultimately self-defeating) rating certificate. “Birds Of Prey” uses profanity like a blunt instrument, not a precision weapon.
In the end, though, despite being messy, inconsistent and occasionally downright incompetent, it’s still a pretty fun watch even if most of the cast deserve better than they get here. As a continuation of Harley’s story and the DCEU from “Suicide Squad”, it’s another poorly executed entry. As a commercial for egg bacon cheese sandwiches though, it’s flawless.