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13 Feb 2020

More Hyena, Please: The Lack of a Plot Overshadows Fun Moments in 'Birds of Prey'

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Ella Jay Basco and Robbie Margot in Birds of Prey. Ella Jay Basco and Robbie Margot in Birds of Prey.

After being the only thing worth anyone’s time in Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn gets her own movie in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, a marked improvement over the film that featured Margot Robbie’s first go at the role.

Unfortunately, “improved” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.”

There’s something askew plot-wise in Birds of Prey—specifically, it doesn’t really have a plot, and the shards of plot it does have are presented sloppily. The movie hops around time spasmodically, like a tweaker on a pogo stick—and while I love Robbie, her Harley Quinn shtick can grate at times.

(By the way, I’m watching Margot on Hot Ones as I write this review, and she’s giving a captivating performance on this YouTube series—not as good as Shia LaBeouf’s performance on the show, but still. She cannot handle her hot wings. I’m actually fearing for her life as I watch this. I won’t give away the ending.)

Anyway, Harley Quinn is joined by the Birds of Prey this time out, and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) all get high marks for what they bring to the party. The basic plot involves bad-guy Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), trying to get a big diamond from a young pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco). That’s about it for story.

Much of the film is spent talking about the Joker, which is strange, because this movie is supposed to be proof that the Birds of Prey don’t need the Joker in their movie. Harley broke up with the Joker, so, mercifully, we don’t have to endure Jared Leto’s take on the character again. Get that plot element out of the way, and let’s move on, right? Nope: The film contains near-constant references to the fact that the Joker is not in this movie. Director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson seem afraid to let go of the Clown Prince of Crime as a plot presence. Newsflash: Nobody cares about the Suicide Squad incarnation of Joker. He was quite underwhelming. It’s all about Joaquin Phoenix now.

The movie, despite being a bit of a fluster-cuck, is sporadically fun. There’s a running bit involving the perfect egg sandwich that is pretty good. The ass-kicking scenes, during which the Birds fly into action, are kinetic and have pop. McGregor’s Sionis has a sadomasochistic relationship with his henchman, Victor (Chris Messina), that’s good for some laughs. And, I love, love, love Bruce, Harley’s pet hyena, named after a certain morose billionaire.

Of the Birds, Smollett-Bell registers the highest as Black Canary, a character who deserves her own movie. Smollett-Bell has the sort of onscreen presence that does not show up that often. She’s done some good work in the past, but she really makes a mark here. Rosie Perez hasn’t been this much fun since Pineapple Express; here, she’s a tough Gotham cop who is willing to bend the rules to get the job done. The always-reliable Winstead is good as The Huntress, although she’s a bit underused.

Robbie is still fun, but the film’s effort to make her a kinder, warmer Harley Quinn renders her a slight bit boring at times. She’s better when she is pure nasty with a little bit of funny. This movie asks her to be a constantly hyper, safer character who’s perhaps a bit too heroic. That’s a mistake—and the sequence in which Harley re-enacts the iconic Marilyn Monroe routine from Gentleman Prefer Blondes is just plain dumb.

Harley Quinn will be back for the James Gunn-helmed The Suicide Squad, but I’m thinking the failures of this installment might put future Harley-centered ventures on hold. Harley and her Birds of Prey have a lot of potential, but their first film together misses the mark. It also needed at least 10 more minutes of Bruce the Hyena.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is now playing at theaters across the valley.

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