Fear not being too old or too male for Birds of Prey, or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn [as performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade]. Call it upcycled, repurposed or just plain ripped off, it’s made out of familiar old gaudy stuff.
A climactic battle in an abandoned fun house with slides, spinning platforms and pop art murals looks like the most expensive episode of the 1960s Batman TV show ever. The soundtrack includes tunes that could be in a dad’s record collection: Heart’s “Barracuda,” a big tortured rendition of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and Spiderbait’s cover of Ram Jam’s cover of Ledbelly’s “Black Betty.”
Spike Lee star Rosie Perez is Lt. Montoya, whose tough-cop dialogue catalyzes the Miami Vice references just as thoroughly as the villain’s pink sports coat and French-cut t-shirt. There’s a prevalence of 1990s backassward Tarantino storytelling: “Oh, I forgot to mention this important part of the story, let’s watch everything we just saw rewinded backwards at high speed.” Most of Birds of Prey is the kind of kid’s cereal commercial, as in the (actually OK) scene when Harley storms a cop-shop carrying a “fun gun,” a beanbag bazooka with glitter, smoke bombs and confetti cartridges.
She started as a cartoon satire of the Starling/Lecter relationship in Silence of the Lambs. On TV’s Batman Adventures, Harley Quinn (played here by star and producer Margot Robbie) was once a Judy Holliday type, a shrink who fell in love with her dangerous patient “Mr. J.” The idea in this superior followup to Suicide Squad, is that Harley’s breakup with Joker removes the protection that she once had to act up anyway she liked.
Harley becomes involved with the citywide hunt for a diamond that’s currently lodged inside the digestive system of Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco), the adolescent pickpocket who swiped it and swallowed it. Crime boss Roman “Black Mask” Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his knife-wielding hench-boyfriend Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) are chief in the hunt for the rock. It’s been five decades or so since we’ve had a fey supervillain like this, fussing over the trophies in his headquarters—watch the cinematic cycle and eventually everything comes back.
The digitized weightless asskicking continues while the movie tries to come together. The appeal of Batstuff is nocturnal mystery, and that’s not what Robbie does with her character. Birds of Prey has a lot of broad daylight in it.
Robbie’s Harley is a version of her Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, if the skater had been at ground zero at a Party City warehouse explosion and then got some bad tattoos in the hospital (the word “Rotten” is inscribed on the curve of her jaw). Her bratty mayhem eclipses the actual vigilantes: Dinah (Jurnee Smolett-Bell) is really Black Canary, who turns out to have a superpower of her own beyond being able to kick ass in skin-tight gold pants. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the crossbow-wielding Huntress; Winstead has a startling resemblance to Blade Runner’s Sean Young, with the same kind of brown-eyed melancholy. She has a right to be sad, as she’s given little to do despite how much audiences like to see a woman with a bow and arrow (or a crossbow and quarrel, in this case).
A roller skate car chase at the end gives the movie a charge—it spins out and it’s well-built crazy fun—as does the funhouse massacre with the masked figures tumbling around. But the story seems low-stakes. Would the Joker be that het up about a hot diamond? He had bigger plans. Here, there’s no sign of that dread city that leaves its brand upon everyone who lives there. Filming in L.A., director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) envisions Harley’s neighborhood as one big Chinatown, with loads of aloha shirts and street grub (a greasy egg-and-bacon hangover sandwich is almost a character in this movie). Up until a finale on a decaying pier in a thick fog, lined with tortured statues like Prague’s Charles bridge, it’s a Gotham City that isn’t gothic.
BIRDS OF PREY Directed by Kathy Yan. Starring Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. (R) 109 minutes.