'Birds Of Prey'
(R / 118 mins)
Overview: You ever hear the one about the cop, the songbird, the psycho and the mafia princess? "Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)" is a twisted tale told by Harley herself, as only Harley can tell it.
When Gotham's most nefariously narcissistic villain, Roman Sionis, and his zealous right-hand, Zsasz, put a target on a young girl named Cass, the city is turned upside down looking for her.
Harley, Huntress, Black Canary and Renee Montoya's paths collide, and the unlikely foursome have no choice but to team up to take Roman down.
Verdict: Beware of movies with long titles. I vaguely recall a Dustin Hoffman film, made in 1971, called “Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?,” but for the life of me I can’t remember the answer to either question.
An oversized title has no practical worth, its sole purpose being to give us a mandatory dose of wackiness. Hence the latest contender, “Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.” Don’t you feel kooked up just reading that?
The film, directed by Cathy Yan, follows on from “Suicide Squad” (2016), which ranked among the most thumpingly cheerless experiences of recent years. Sequels were therefore inevitable. This one begins—and, given the tone at which the movie aims, should perhaps have continued—with a high-speed cartoon sequence.
We are yanked through the personal history of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a bright kid who went on to become first a psychiatrist and then a frenzied felon. What wrought the change was her relationship with the Joker, a big cheese in the stink of Gotham City. (In case you’re wondering: no, Joaquin Phoenix does not appear.) Harley, however, has now split with her grinning swain and gone solo.
Comic-book films are plagued by a particular indecision: are the protagonists better off being lonesome or gregarious? When we describe them as clubbable, is that because they like to gang together or because, taken as individuals, they’re just asking to be hit over the head?
Needless to say, the plague is extremely profitable; Iron Man, for instance, has three Marvel movies pretty much to himself but also gets folded into the Avengers. The DC franchise, desperate not to be outdone, has tried something similar with Batman, forcing the poor fellow to sign up for “Justice League” (2017), when we all know that he’d be so much happier staying home, curling up in his little Bat-bed, and shedding idle tears over the Bat-days that are no more.
No one could call Harley Quinn a recluse. She loves to go out, get wasted, meet people, and fight them. In onscreen graphics, she proudly reports what it is about her that vexes her opponents. (“Voted for Bernie.” “Have a vagina.”) Yet Harley is often alone in the frame—marching toward the camera in her T-shirt and shorts, smiling madly through lips of fire-engine red, and peppering us with unceasing chatter, as if words were buckshot. She lives on her own, too, with a stuffed beaver in a tutu and a pet hyena named Bruce.
(As with the title, note the surfeit of nuttiness. Rarely have I seen a movie strain so hard to seem out-there.) Our heroine needs some kindred spirits, and quick.
So, a warbling welcome to the Birds of Prey: Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a teen-age thief; Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer and chauffeur; and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a cop who’s been passed over for promotion.
Last and loftiest is Helena Bertinelli—the one interesting card in the pack, the reason being neither her backstory (some Mafia-flavored baloney about revenge) nor her skill with a crossbow but the fact that she’s played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who, thanks to her low and Lauren Bacall-ish delivery, brings an amused aloofness to the fray.
All of the above team up with Harley to tackle Roman Siones (Ewan McGregor), a Gotham superthug, otherwise known as Black Mask. Why? Because he sometimes wears one. Scary.
The script is by Christina Hodson, who has also contributed to the creation of Highland 2, an app that enables you to submit your screenplay to gender analysis.
No surprise, then, that Yan’s movie, peopled as it is by women who talk among themselves, with only fitful reference to men, doesn’t so much pass the Bechdel Test as ace it, while also ticking the profanity box, the ear-splitting box, and the bone-snapping box—every box, in fact, except for the tricky one that requires a motion picture to be good. “Birds of Prey,” alas, is an unholy and sadistic mess.
“Nothing gets a guy’s attention like violence,” Harley says, and the action consists largely of female combatants breaking the limbs of hapless males and clobbering them in the groin.
Thoroughly deserved, I guess, and about time, too, though the point was more efficiently and more elegantly made long ago, in “Nothing Sacred” (1937), when Carole Lombard, in revenge for being punched by Fredric March, slugs him back. For a second, he teeters upright, whereupon she puffs at him, as if blowing the clock off a dandelion, and he keels over.
That gets his attention just fine.