Birds of Prey
Directed by Cathy Yan
“Birds of Prey,” or more completely “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” is a tricky movie to describe and that may be its underlying problem. For starters, it’s a film built around a character with a significant following among prospective young viewers who are denied entry because of the film’s R rating – which is most likely a factor in its relatively weak opening weekend. It’s also a film that’s titled for a group of three secondary characters, the Birds of Prey, none of whom are especially well introduced or defined and who aren’t a cohesive group until the film’s closing moments. So it’s an origin film for characters who aren’t the film’s main focus.
Meanwhile, the central character Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is primarily defined by who she isn’t any more – Joker’s girlfriend. She’s a violent sociopath who no longer has the protection of Gotham’s arch-villain (who is mentioned but never seen), which means she’s vulnerable to attack from the many people she’s previously wronged – which is more of a set-up than a plot. There’s also a missing diamond with additionally valuable information etched inside it, that everybody wants, but that also feels like more of a backstory than a significant plot.
But perhaps the film’s biggest flaw, aside from very little story, is that it lacks a good villain. Ewan McGregor plays Roman Sionis, a seemingly quite powerful gangster (but second-rate compared to Joker) who is even less well defined than the characters the film is supposedly about. He has a lead henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) who skins people alive, either because he likes it or because Sionis does, but Sionis himself is primarily just angry most of the time. He’s also a masked character (Black Mask) who rarely seems to put his mask on.
Much of the Sionis/Zsasz relationship seems edited after the fact, although it might have been improved by further editing out a somewhat vague accent McGregor uses. He sounds just American enough not to sound like Ewan McGregor but not enough to sound like anything specific – and the accent ends up seeming unnecessarily distracting. And overall it’s hard to think of a weaker performance by McGregor.
Robbie, by comparison, is going full tilt crazy and seemingly having a blast. And much of the film is sloppy fun as Harley Quinn narrates her own action and dominates every scene she’s in. But that level of energy and exuberance, while entertaining, can’t overcome the lack of substance around it. The Birds of Prey are played by Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, all of whom seem able to do far more than they’ve been asked to do here. All three of their characters seem limited in their dimensionality – Perez, for example, plays a stereotypically angry cop who’s even dismissed within the screenplay as a stereotypically angry cop. Winstead is an angry, revenge-seeking, crossbow-wielding, adult orphan who hasn’t thought past the point of what to do once she’s killed the killers of her family, and Smollet-Bell is a club singer with a powerful talent that may be one of the least explained or utilized super powers in film.
All of which is a shame, because Robbie as Harley Quinn could carry a better structured film – something with a clearer narrative arc and better defined opposition. It also might have been a better idea to establish her as a lead before using her to launch other characters – and the villains here are simply wasted. I spoke after the press screening with a friend who’s a fan, who told me more about Zsasz in a couple of sentences than the film managed to do in it’s entire running time.
And this is an almost perfect example of a film that demonstrates how poorly people understand the review aggregating website RottenTomatoes, which has been repeatedly cited as showing widespread critical support for the film, albeit gradually dropping from 90+% positive ratings to 80%. But if you look at the second part of how those scores are collected, the average rating for the film is below 7/10, so those critical responses may be positive, but only moderately so. Which is about where I come out on the film also – it’s messy fun when it’s Harley Quinn as the center of attention and mostly just messy the rest of the time.
Another recent film, in current release, with an odd choice of accents is “The Rhythm Section.” Blake Lively plays the sole remaining member of a family, the rest of whom were killed in an airline crash caused by a terrorist bomber. She was a student in England and remains in London after the crash, where she hits rock bottom as a drug addicted prostitute, trying not to remember anything about her previous life. That is until she’s found by a freelance journalist who leads her to an ex-MI6 agent (Jude Law) who in turn trains her to seek revenge against the bomber. If that seems a little far fetched, it’s actually played with some restraint, and gains by having her remain somewhat amateurish in her actions. She’s successful, but not easily so and not in the seemingly unstoppable manner of the lead in a film like “Atomic Blonde” – instead she always seems vulnerable and likely to fail. But it’s all strangely flavored by the choice to have Blake Lively be English, where she could just as easily have been American without a single aspect of the story changing. She cuts and dies her hair into a shaggy Chalamet-esque mop, and ends up looking like Cole Sprouse and sounding like she trained with Gillian Anderson’s vocal coach. It’s structurally pretty sound film undermined by those distracting choices, but still worth a watch – albeit probably when it hits a screen in your living room.