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You killed my sandwich!

Birds of Prey
(and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
(2020)

(SPOILERS) One has to wonder at Bird of Prey’s 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I mean, such things are to be taken with a pinch of salt at the best of times, but it would be easy, given the disparity between such evident approval and the actually quality of the movie, to suspect insincere motives on the part of critics, that they’re actually responding to its nominally progressive credentials – female protagonists in a superhero flick! – rather than its content. Which I’m quite sure couldn’t possibly be the case. Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t very good. The trailers did not lie, even if the positive reviews might have misled you into thinking they were misleading.

I’m reluctant to conclude from this that a Harley Quinn-led movie is inevitably a bust, however. Her self-consciously glib repartee and narration often bears a superficial resemblance to Deadpool, which was, of course, a massive hit (times two). And Margot Robbie is easily the best element of the movie, as she also was in Suicide Squad. Robbie’s engaged and engaging enough to make the frequently undercooked dialogue sound halfway kooky (“Call me old fashioned, but I always thought the guy was meant to get the girl the diamond”).

So the problem is really that almost everything else about this Christine Hudson scripted, Cathy Yan directed solo outing is at best mediocre, and more commonly an outright bust. Material of this sort absolutely needs a sympathetic sensibility and energy, so the protagonist is acting in unison with the flavour of the film itself (with Deadpool, much of that came from Reynolds’ improv, but his hands-on presence amounts to the same thing). There’s none of that here, excepting in a very few fleeting instances.

In that respect, Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) rather resembles Tank Girl of twenty-plus years ago. Which is a little unfair to Rachel Talalay, who did at least try. The only times Birds of Prey comes alive visually are in the action reshoots helmed by John Wick maestro Chad Stahelski or various pieces of punched up (as in, through layering music or narration or rapid-fire editing) business with Harley.

Otherwise, Yan’s direction has to be the flattest, most four-square disaster a comic book movie has seen since the heyday of Mark Steven Johnson (of Daredevil and Ghostrider notoriety). Just count the number of shots – or lose count – where she’s parading her cast members with the least imaginative blocking and framing. DP Matthew Libatique attempts some interesting palate washes with the lighting, but the result for the most part gives off the vibe of cheap sets. I was going to compare the overall look of the movie to 90s TV, but 90s TV tended to look far superior. This may have cost anything up to $100m but it looks utterly cheap and tacky.

Consequently, Robbie’s instantly iconic Suicide Squad performance has simply been dropped into a subpar, under-designed, under-finessed picture that has no idea what it wants to achieve tonally. So on the one hand, there’s gratuitous violence aplenty (peeling off a family’s faces, stabbings, bone snappings and throat slittings) approaching the level of deafness found in Robocop 2. On the other, Harley’s given a parent/child relationship with streetwise kid – I know, it’s that ugh – Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco) who has swallowed a McGuffin diamond wanted by Ewan McGregor’s villain (there's an unsubstantiated rumour out there that the character was significantly reconfigured in reshoots, including the nature of the McGuffin, BJs ahoy).

There are terribly dull exposition and character scenes, many involving Rosie Perez’s dogged cop Montoya (Perez is as irritating as ever, but that’s all on the character here at least; no Bobo to be found this time). The usually reliable Mary Elizabeth Winstead comes a cropper as vigilante, cross-bow wielding avenger Huntress (her costuming is especially dire), while Jurnee Smollett-Bell unleashes laughably naff hypersonic screams as Dinah/Black Canary. The birds of the title are both underdeveloped and abysmally realised. I’m gobsmacked they’re all bona-fide DC characters, since they come across as having been invented on the fly by someone with absolutely no imagination or ingenuity.

Taking the award for phenomenally lousy performance, though, is McGregor as Roman Sionis/Black Mask. McGregor is playing a twisted, campy woman hater with a penchant for torturing his victims (there’s a suggestion of queer coding between Sionis and henchman Zsasz, played by Chris Messina, which one might suggest is troubling, given the unabashed misogyny displayed by both). McGregor isn’t able to cite any past form when it comes to hamming it up a storm or indulging in heightened or flamboyant performances, with the consequence that he comes across as severely lacking here, if not to say faintly embarrassing. As a substandard villain – the movie gives us no reason for Sionis wearing the mask and even less for reason to think he might be an iconic villain in the Batman pantheon – he only adds to the sense that this is a B-movie in the least laudable definition of the term.

Positives, aside from the aforementioned Robbie? Occasionally, a glimpse of visual wit surfaces; there’s a chase sequence in which Harley is desperate to eat her bacon-and-egg sarnie and is duly foiled at every turn. A running gag involves those formerly insulted, injured or degraded by her attempting to get their revenge, emerging out of the woodwork at the least convenient moments. Her hyena gives rises to a line Paul Merton would be proud of, at least as delivered by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse (“Is that a hyena in a bathtub?”). You can briefly see the picture Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) might have been in these sequences. The action provided by Stahelski is entirely serviceable, with expected choreographic flair (be it prison break or bike chase), but it isn’t very witty or clever; he couldn’t really be expected to come in and assemble the required tone, though, not when the surrounding film was left so wanting.

Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a bad movie. That’s why it’s underperforming. People saw the trailer and got a whiff of its stink. I’m tempted to put that largely on Yan as, even though the “assemble the Birds of Prey” structure itself is on the shoddy side, Hodson’s Bumblebee largely worked as directed by Travis Knight. Warner’s’ decision to retitle the movie Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, on the rather desperate basis that her potential audience were insufficiently aware to show up – because it’s all down to the title – shows the studio is as hit and miss as ever, despite an uptick in the quality of their DC fare (it’s as evident as failing to consider whether the picture actually merited an R rating, which it probably didn’t, unless it was wholeheartedly going to embrace its potential irreverence, rather than reeling blindly around taking pot-shots at anything that seemed like it might justify “adult” status). It looks like it will be left to Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot to show DC how it should be done this year.


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