Margot Robbie‘s Harley Quinn is still great fun, but her new movie — which perhaps ought to be called Harley Quinn and Some Birds of Prey — doesn’t always equal her star power. It plays like a more diverse Suicide Squad that’s better written, but filmed on a visibly lower budget. Splitting the difference between Zack Snyder-style stylized fights, Shazam-ish comedy, and an occasional Deadpool R-rated sensibility, director Cathy Yan never quite finds a consistent tone to the proceedings. Although as long as the focus stays on Harley, that doesn’t really matter.
Birds of Prey sort-of exists in the DCEU we know. She has flashbacks to Suicide Squad, and a wanted poster of Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang gets prominent placement. Yet an animated prologue depicted her break-up with the Joker shows a more classic Mark Hamill version. And the corrupt Gotham City PD doesn’t look like a force that’s ever heard of Jim Gordon. Plus we also learn that Harley Quinn voted for Bernie Sanders, which opens up another conundrum. Do we imagine all of our real world politicians exist in this universe too?
Regardless, electoral politics have little bearing on Gotham City, where, without the Joker’s protection, Harley is now targeted by everyone she ever wronged. Chief among these is Roman “Black Mask” Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who is sick of Harley doing whatever she likes in his high-roller nightclubs. Sionis seeks a diamond with secret bank account information encoded within on a molecular level. And it’s almost in his grasp when preteen pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Dante Basco’s niece Ella Jay Basco) steals and swallows it without comprehending its true value. Harley pursues her in hopes of trading the diamond to get Roman’s bounty off her head. Meanwhile officer Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) follows with longshot hopes of finally busting Roman. Mysterious new vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and nightclub singer-turned getaway driver Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) find themselves in the middle with different motives.
That’s a lot of characters to balance, especially with the competing tones of the stories they represent. Montoya’s tale is one of being an alcoholic whose achievements are always co-opted by male partners, yet she’s mocked by other heroines for talking in TV cop cliches. Canary — who in this telling gets her nickname because she’s African-American and she sings — is the one utterly serious character, a henchwoman who can no longer look the other way at her boss’ misogyny and abuse. Both she and Montoya feel like they belong in another, more dramatic film. McGregor plays Sionis as high camp, with a strong implication that he and sidekick Victor Zsaz (Chris Messina) are a couple. Meanwhile, Huntress plays like a parody of Frank Miller grimdark noir, painfully murdering people while fixating on what her catchphrase and nickname should be.
Harley is Harley, and the story unfolds as she remembers it. This allows for occasionally colorful diversions like a “Material Girl”-style dance number, but mostly onscreen captions and lots of narration. The heart of the story is her growing maternal instincts for budding criminal Cassandra, which plays like a way more dysfunctional version of the Mandalorian/Baby Yoda dynamic. Or perhaps the Indy/Short Round pairing at the beginning of Temple of Doom, before the former has learned to care about other kids.
At its very best, like a chase scene in which Harley runs into multiple competing crooks trying to kill here, Birds of Prey has a manic, dark-comedy edge that’s almost as close to Trainspotting as Deadpool. At its least-best, cheap and poorly lit locations and matte paintings diminish the admittedly cool fight choreography unfolding in front of them. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique (Venom, Iron Man 2) fails to really match the cartoon insanity of its anti-heroine. Fortunately, at least editors Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff keep the fights clear and comprehensible, so every hit lands.
We do need to talk about the costumes, because they’re mostly a bit of a bummer. Harley dons some wild and crazy style that works fine for her, but Huntress and Black Canary have been wronged by these choices. Huntress is stuck with the ’90s “everything black leather” look with just a hint of purple in her civilian outfits. Black Canary has the kind of yellow spandex Wolverine famously derided back in 2000. Worse, later in the film they get new outfits that look like ’70s disco versions of their comic looks. Nobody says they have to wear outfits that pander to the male gaze, but either fully casual or fully superheroic would be better. It’s symbolic, in a way, of the movie’s seeming discomfort with committing to a unifying tone and look.
As for Roman Sionis’ mask, it’s irrelevant. Putting it on gives him no additional powers, nor does it conceal his identity. Cassandra Cain goes even further afield from her comics identity. Years away from potentially being a new Batgirl, she’s a poor kid from a broken home sans any assassin training. And a Birds of Prey origin movie without Oracle is like an X-Men prequel with no Professor X. But to be fair, the DC suits are clearly still figuring out how post-Affleck Batman, and by extension Batgirl, fits in this new universe. Sit through the end credits and you’ll be rewarded with a joke loosely on that topic.
Robbie’s Harley, as in Suicide Squad, is the show-stealer, and the film is careful not to completely redeem her. During one fight, she powers up on cocaine like she’s Popeye swilling spinach, and nobody ever gives her an obligatory lecture. Her “powers” remain ambiguous, as apparently Joker chemicals give a person elite MMA skills and enhanced perspicacity. Yet it feels like the studio is hesitant to let her go full-on Ryan Reynolds, and that’s a shame. Every time she gets close, the movie comes alive. Perez’s Montoya can’t — and shouldn’t have to — compete with that for co-protagonist status. Even aided by an awkward obscene T-shirt she dons for no apparent reason.
A lower-key DCEU movie is a fine idea. One that commits to Harley’s all-out crazy world would be even better. That would have been more along the lines of what the posters promised us. Harley Quinn isn’t Deadpool, but she’s never fully the Harley from the comics either. There are definitely fun parts in the movie, but both Harley and the Birds of Prey themselves ultimately deserved more.