2016’s Suicide Squad was an admirable attempt to infuse some freewheeling humor and a brawny sense of adventure into a cinematic universe that was in dark danger of taking itself too seriously. The only fly in the ointment was that it wasn’t particularly funny or exciting. Now, we get Birds of Prey, a spinoff nobody’s asking for, with an extended title nobody wants to read. Crazy thing is, somewhere along this fantabulous emancipation of Harley Quinn lies a movie that ain’t half bad. Yeah, it feels inessential, and it doesn’t make up for Justice League or any of the other DECU horse puckey. Still, keep those expectations at ground level and you might find Birds to be 109 minutes of junk food fun.
Set some time after Squad, this film starts off with Dr. Quinn (Margot Robbie) in the deepest despair: It seems she and the Joker have finally called off their tempestuous love affair. Quinn finds therapy in boozing, brawling, and blowing shit up. Unfortunately, she also learns that losing the Joker means losing his powerful protection. Enemies soon start popping out of every alleyway, ready to exact vengeance on Gotham’s clown princess.
Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) proves to be the worst of these angry bad guys. When Quinn gets in the way of Sionis’s plans to consolidate his nefarious control, she finds herself in the crosshairs of every killer in the city. As she struggles to stay one step ahead of the rogues, Quinn uncovers a plot involving a massive diamond, a plucky pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco), and an assortment of badass chicks: Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is the dedicated cop surrounded by a sea of corruption. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), armed with a crossbow and a bad attitude, wanders into the fray for some Kill Bill revenge. Finally, Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smolett-Bell) uses a sultry singing voice as cover for the superpowers hidden beneath it. These cornered criminals have to find a way to come together and stare down a greater evil.
Don’t take that Tarantino reference lightly: Remember Fox Force Five, the fictitious female Mod Squad in Pulp Fiction? This feels like the fleshed-out version of that. Scorching, profane, and propulsive, Tarantino’s influence flows through this movie like lit jet fuel. That goes ditto for Deadpool, right down to the cutesy cutaway graphics and relentless fourth-wall breaking. Nothing in Birds of Prey seems revolutionary, but hopefully nobody goes to a movie like this to see a new cinematic trail get blazed. (Actually, a lot of people will go to this movie to get blazed themselves.) Again, lowered expectations are the key.
On the subject of expectations, Robbie is probably one of the few aspects of this movie for whom audiences may have high hopes. After all, with her Noo Yawk accent and twinkly psychosis, Robbie saved Suicide Squad from drowning in its own misery. Harley Quinn fans will be pleased to know that Robbie actually builds on her performance in that movie. This time, Quinn reveals layers of vulnerability and humanity, thus migrating her character firmly into anti-hero territory.
As for the other murderous Birds, most of them end up underdeveloped and heavily reliant on narration, flashbacks, and subtitles to explain their purpose in the film. I know the film mocks its own cleverness, but even this gimmick eventually feels like it’s hiding some lazy writing. In particular, Winstead is a fun actress, and it would’ve been nice to see her with something more to do with Huntress. I mean, firing arrows and kicking dudes in the nuts is cool and all, but after a while…
Maybe that’s me being a smidge greedy. So many recent DC movies have been a dick in the mashed potatoes. I shouldn’t ding this one too hard, because it’s…you know…actually entertaining. The fight scenes pop. A few of the jokes made me chuckle out loud. More than anything, I liked Birds of Prey because it didn’t make me hate it.
109 min. R.