Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 14, 2020

Villain, ticket buyers could both do with less ‘Harley Quinn’ chatter

In one scene from “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey,” an action film based on the titular DC Comics team, a crime lord slaps the chatty antihero Harley Quinn across the face and shouts, “You’re so irritating!”

Not that I identify with criminals, or condone violence, but I know how he felt. Quinn had been prattling on for most of the movie, and I just wanted her to stop talking and let things play out naturally.

Quinn’s unrelenting narration might have been necessary, given the non-linear nature of the story, but man, did it grate on my nerves.

The film’s original title, “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” which was changed after the opening weekend, might lead you to believe the film is an origin story, but it’s not. Rather, it takes place after “Suicide Squad” (2016) and following an off-screen break up between Quinn and The Joker.

Quinn spits all this out in a rapid-fire voice-over at the beginning of the movie, I guess for the benefit of viewers who wander into the theater without having seen a DC Comics film before.

I don’t like when a movie throws a lot of information at me in the first few minutes, so that was an unnerving way for “Birds of Prey” to begin. But I thought perhaps it was over and the film would settle into a groove.

It doesn’t. As the story broadens to include the origin stories of three other Birds of Prey, and then skips back in time, and then jumps forward again, and so on, Quinn constantly keeps the audience apprised of what’s happening.

It was like having a tour guide on a rollercoaster ride. “If everyone will look to the left, you’ll see where Suzy lost her lunch after the last loop.”

Three things held my interest, though. One, Margot Robbie (last seen in “Bombshell”) is terrific as Quinn. As exasperating as her commentary is, she captures the mentally unbalanced side and homicidal tendencies of Quinn without making her entirely unsympathetic. I can’t tell you what kind of Quinn the comics portray, but Robbie’s Quinn still has a heart beating inside of her and a soft spot for the angry and dispossessed.

Two, “Birds of Prey” is packed with creative fight choreography and stunts. Maybe it’s shallow of me, but when filmmakers do things I haven’t seen before, my enjoyment of their work ticks upward.

Perhaps you’ve seen a mad psychiatrist kick a phone into a thug’s face mid-cartwheel in another movie, but I haven’t, and it was fun to see.

Three, director Cathy Yan displays an impressive amount of confidence and skill considering “Birds of Prey” is only her second feature. Directing a studio tentpole can’t be easy, considering the financial and artistic stakes, but she delivered a visually appealing film with some strong technical prowess.

I don’t think Yan quite achieved the tone she wanted, though. It seems like she wanted to cross the criminal underworld vibe at which Martin Scorsese excels with a manic comic book movie, and never really gets there.

Ewan McGregor is especially off as Roman Soinis, the Quinn-slapping crime lord I mentioned at the start of this review. McGregor is a fine actor, but I didn’t buy him as the narcissistic gangster.

While Soinis comes across as slimy and dangerous, it’s more because of what he does than how he acts. If McGregor had tried to sell Soinis as a bad guy who consumes too much caffeine and raises his voice a lot, I would have bought that.

Although “Birds of Prey” is flawed, I like the direction in which DC is going. The home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and other characters initially tried to match the success of Marvel Studios by developing a single narrative thread across multiple films, but as “Justice League” (2017) demonstrated, they didn’t have the chops.

Since then, DC has been releasing standalone films of exceptional quality – and in the case of “Joker” (2019) and “Birds of Prey,” originality. I hope they continue in this vein moving forward.

Just please nix the narration if there’s a “Birds of Prey” sequel. It’s so irritating!