I pity Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn for not being able to find its audience, having the misfortune of opening just as the pandemic entered the news. Shunted to streaming, it’s languished and honestly, it’s entertaining and fun.
It’s not as good as anticipated.
Long in development, the movie was the brainchild of Margot Robbie, who immortalized the live-action version in 2016’s Suicide Squad misfire. Her role was largely inspired on the New 52/Rebirth take on the character, more Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti than Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. She was certainly the best thing about the movie so a spinoff featuring her and some of DC Comics’ other heroines sounded great.
She bonded with screenwriter Christina Hodson, best known for her solid work on Bumblebee (and credited as the writer of the still unfilmed Flash), and they crafted a gonzo story that picked up where the other film ended, hence the “emancipation” portion of the mouthful of a title.
Harley Quinn has severed her ties with the Joker and is adrift, wallowing in self-pity, leaving a trail of destruction on a large scale. A regular at the Black Mask Club, run by Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), she befriends Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a torch singer turned Sionis’ personal driver. She’s on hand to witness Sionis’ thug Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) picking up a valuable diamond, only to have it snatched from him by the teen thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Elsewhere, Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is investigating Harley’s actions while a female vigilante (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is killing criminals. And we’re off.
The diamond is the magnetic McGuffin that brings the women together to oppose Sionis and his criminal forces climaxing in an amazing battle at an abandoned Fun House.
The various women all get their backstories told in various flashbacks and Hodson gets credit for playing with the story structure so we’re getting multiple points of view, flashbacks, and voiceovers (with Harley not the most reliable of narrators). Still, we learn Dinah is the daughter of Black Canary who, we gather, was protecting Gotham City before Batman arrived. The entire sense of legacy is cool but tossed of in a line and never picked up so we never fully understand Dinah’s reluctance to embrace her sonic powers and fighting skills.
Cassandra is there in name only, serving the fans and doing a massive disservice to the fans of her four-color source. What we have here is closer to a female Short Round with a potty mouth.
As underwritten as the women are, the men are worse off with Szasz, a deadly opponent in the comics, is reduced to being a sidekick thug who never comes off as menacing. Sionis’ comics origins were creepier and he was far more threatening in comics than here. McGregor was miscast or misdirected because he never rises to a true threat or memorable screen villain. At best, he’s a wanna-be Bond villain, at worst, he’s just boring.
Gotham City’s edges are the focal point of the story but Gotham, when well-used, is a character in its own right and the film’s production design fails to accomplish this until we get the final quarter, both at the amusement park and then at a pier. Until then, it’s a generic city which is not Gotham, home to the Bat. His presence gets a shout out but never seems to influence the cops or the criminals.
Where the film excels is energy, with some of the best stunts and action sequences yet found in a super-hero film. Kudos to the stunt team and the actors who just let it rip and looked like they were having a ball.
Director Cathy Yan gets credit for bringing a loose sense of verve to the proceedings but I wish a little more care went into characterization and its place in the greater DC filmed universe. She and Robbie hope for a sequel with Poison Ivy, which could be fun, but the box office forecast makes that an iffy proposition at best.
The movie can be rent or bought on your favorite streaming service. The copy reviewed via MoviesAnywhere.com nicely captured the range of colors and tones from daylight to foggy night. The audio at home was just fine so overall, watching from the home screen wasn’t an issue.
The film is accompanied by a routine assortment of special features which, light the film, keep things bright and always on the surface: Birds Eye View Mode, the entire film with pop up trivia and commentary offering some interesting tidbits and insights; Whip it Real Good (:55), a shorter version of the Skating piece; Birds of a Feather (8:26), everyone gushes; Romanesque (4:57), a look at Roman Sionis; A Love, Skate Relationship (4:29), a brief look at the real world roller derby women who participated in the film and the stunts on wheels; Grime and Crime (10:38), exploring the production design; Sanity is sooo last Season (7:39), a look at costumes and accessories; Wild Nerds (6:03), all about the unusual approach to storytelling including the visual effects, notably scenes with Bruce the hyena; and Gag Reel (2:02).