I have nothing but scorn for the full title Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which I will only henceforth refer to as Birds of Prey in the interest of bringing this review in under 3000 words,* but credit where credit's due, it's unquestionably right for the movie it's attached to. It's extremely fucking eager to impress upon you with how quirky and zany and Fun! it is, and it's also the most exhausting, tiresome thing. Whatever actual fun and bounciness attain are more because one has decided in the face of all that mugging, to permit the title to have its way; it is perhaps more of a simulation of humor and personality that it offers, than actual humor and personality, but it offers that simulation so hard. Every word of this applies to the film attached to that title as well, and while I spent large stretches of Birds of Prey ready to surrender if it would just, like, calm the hell down for five minutes, I'll allow that even simulated personality is more than the competition is able to get up to.

The film exists in the increasingly vague remains of what was once the DC Extended Universe: it is most likely a sequel to 2016's Suicide Squad, though never explicitly so beyond the fact of having one actor from that movie playing the same character in this one. And really, this is the best thing that could have ever happened to Birds of Prey, since it means the only thing it absolutely definitely has to do in order to qualify as an artistic success is to be better than that movie. And I say this as somebody who wasn't nearly as hostile to Suicide Squad as many people: it absolutely should not take any effort to meet that goal. Of course, Birds of Prey gets there; it does not, I think, get there with flying colors, and it has in fact gone to somewhat baffling effort to sabotage itself. But on balance, it's a "fun", "lively" movie, even if it is so calculated and effortful in being "fun" and "lively" that it feels necessary to put those words in scare quotes.

The short version of the narrative: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, whose enthusiasm for returning to the character was apparently the driving force for this film's existence; she has a producer credit) has just been dumped by the unseen Joker (the happily-forgotten Jared Leto one), which means that everybody in Gotham City that she's antagonised over the years sees a ripe opportunity for revenge. Foremost among these is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a crime boss with a penchant for torture, and a long list of enemies in his own right. Circumstances surrounding the theft of an ungodly large diamond put Harley into contact with some of these enemies: Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a long-suffering police detective; Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a nightclub singer presently working as Roman's driver; and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), the teenage pickpocket who ended up with the diamond. The long version of the narrative is pretty much the same, only with bits of backstory that have been run through a blender and strung out irregularly throughout something like the first four-fifths of the plot.

This is, far and away, the most tiresome thing about the movie: its structure is a chaotic mess. It is important to point out right away that this is on purpose, and it is flagged right from the start of the movie. Harley tells us everything that happens, both in voice-over narration, and in several moments of breaking the fourth wall, and since one of the first things she tells us is that she's an addle-brained psychopath, it stands to reason that she's going to keep tripping up in her memories and have to backtrack, repeat herself, abruptly throw in details she forgot back when they were germane, and so on (it's a good deal like the meta-narrative games of the earlier Robbie vehicle I, Tonya, though not remotely as successful). The messy arrangement of exposition across so much of Birds of Prey - and while four-fifths was an exaggeration, it certainly goes beyond the half-way point - is certainly a defensible choice, even if it is also a bad choice. It slaughters the momentum of a film that has bet virtually everything it has on being bubbly and bouncy, and this makes it extremely hard to get into the film for a very long time. Basically, it's other fun when Robbie is onscreen, or it's droning and aimless when she's not, and while this is unquestionably a Harley Quinn movie first, a Birds of Prey movie second (the team is not, in fact, so named until almost the very end), there's still plenty of time for non-Harley characters, virtually all of it wasted in the early going. The cast is game, but Christina Hodson's screenplay hasn't given them much in the way of actual characters to work with, and while hard-boiled pros like Perez and McGregor find ways around this (she by relying on her inexhaustible charisma and screen presence, he by slowly adding in more and more caricatured details to make his character an increasingly wacky cartoon lunatic), Smollett-Bell and Basco, in particular, are left to wither in the elements (Winstead, given by far the worst-written major character in the film, copes with it by doing what I think is a Christian Bale parody, and it basically works). Robbie is the only person who actually gets an arc and playable details to work with, and it's the reason she's the only person who's much fun at all to watch. In fact, the only other performance that I think actually "works" is Chris Messina, playing the sadistic killer Zsasz - a cliché from the grimmest and darkest corner of the '90s (and as one of my all-time least-favorite Batman villains for that reason), but Messina makes the cliché work.

Back to the question of momentum. The film wants so desperately to be a cheeky, snarky blast of fun, and it spends so much time circling around and around; it's sarcastic and snotty, but I'm damned if I can see what's fun about most of it. Eventually, far too late, the five women are thrust together and made to team up, and suddenly Birds of Prey goes from being intermittently amusing to actively entertaining for a solid 25 minutes or so. Which isn't too bad for a film that's able to contain itself to 109 minutes - a miracle of a running time, for a comic book movie of its generation. Though they are not a fleet 109 minutes. At any rate, the film always has sparks of life in Erin Benach's bold costumes, simple and colorful affairs that have the iconic quality of comic book uniforms, and in the productive contrast between the harshness of the city streets (with Los Angeles ably standing in for an especially New York-ey Gotham) and the garish comic book delirium that Harley and her visual accoutrements represent, in Matthew Libatique's cinematographer and especially the production design, by K.K. Barrett, which brings in big chunky blocks of lurid color to offset the urban realism of the sets. The action sequences, overseen by second unit director Chad Stahelski, aren't quite up to the "John Wick in a comic book" choreography of my dreams, but given the dreadful action in this genre in the last few years, it more than gets the job done.

I'm not sure how much of all of that is fun and how much of it is "Fun™" - some of the color definitely errs on the side of something pre-packaged to be overtly stylised in a way that ends up being not very interesting - but enough of it is dazzling to draw attention away from how sluggishly the plot develops prior to the big showdown (it has just occurred to me that Birds of Prey is basically a first act and a third act with no second act in between. A fascinating gambit, if intentional, but questionably effective). Cathy Yan, directing her first big studio project, is able to keep things busy enough that it's never actively boring, even when nothing is happening, and the good cheer of the cast helps paper over how non-existent their characters mostly are. It's a little wearisome when all is said and done, but at least it's colorful and outlandish, something like the version of Suicide Squad that we were promised in 2016 and denied. And again, it's probably unfair to give a movie a passing grade just for passing that particular test, but hey, better than not passing it.

Reviews in this series
Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016)
Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016)
Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017)
Justice League (Snyder, 2017)
Aquaman (Wan, 2018)
Shazam! (Sandberg, 2019)
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (Yan, 2020)





*I will most certainly not help Warner Bros. in its cowardly attempt to rebrand the movie and sink this monumentally cumbersome title into a memory hole.