Nobody was expecting “Birds of Prey” to be “Little Women.” Still, there was reason to hope for some diverting superhero-genre kicks from this female-powered Margot Robbie showcase, whose full, Strangelove-ian title is actually — deep breath — “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).”
If there was a saving grace to the DC cinematic universe’s underwhelming 2016 “Dirty Dozen” riff “Suicide Squad,” it was Robbie’s loopy turn as Harley, the Joker’s slinky, Betty Boop-accented thrall-slash-moll. With the character frequently wasted amid all of that movie’s stultifying supervillain mayhem, there seemed to be real potential in spinning her off into a vehicle of her own — and with a primarily female talent roster to boot. The supporting cast includes Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, of “Friday Night Lights.”
All that director Cathy Yan and company do with their intriguing opportunity is prove that they can, indeed, make an action flick just like dudes — right down to the last brutal, meat-headed, narratively deficient detail. (The film follows the lead of “Joker” among DC fare in carrying an R rating.) Beyond a few cool touches — Harley channeling Marilyn! Some butt-kicking set to a pitch-black cover of “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”! — the movie gets to be a slog, despite Robbie again giving it her mischievous all.
Harley may have been conceived as a freakish bride to the Joker’s Frankenstein, but that’s hardly a conceptual deal-breaker for the filmmakers. They launch right into their theme of women not allowing men to define them by informing us that she and “Mistah J” are kaput.
Harley doesn’t need her ex to get into trouble — in this case, overly formulaic business about a criminally coveted diamond that gets her tangled up with scruffily tenacious Gotham City cop Renee Montoya (Perez); tough-girl nightclub singer Dinah Lance (Smollett-Bell); and vengeful, crossbow-wielding mystery woman Huntress (Winstead). Newcomer Ella Jay Basco is also key to the plot as a sassy kid pickpocket — although you might wish her gastrointestinal state were a little less key, unless you’ve been jonesing for DC to cover “Bridesmaids” scatology.
The gals all end up running afoul of Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a.k.a. Black Mask, a rising Gotham kingpin who’s as wacky as he is sadistic. The ever-sly McGregor has some fun with his gangster’s jaunty derangement, but the character’s dual nature seems accidental, like one more scattershot element in a whole collection of them. (And what’s his style — “Velvet Goldmine” or “Miami Vice”? Well, that depends on the scene.)
Robbie’s own skillful broadness is more consistent, but she’s also caught in the film’s awkward push-pull between cartoonish and graphically intense. She flashes wicked wit and dispenses skates-to-the-face punishment with striking acrobatic grace — but for what, ultimately? The title might trumpet Harley Quinn’s emancipation, but she again feels like a character trapped in a movie that’s mediocre at best.
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BIRDS OF PREY
Directed by Cathy Yan. Written by Christina Hodson. Starring Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell. Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 109 minutes. R (strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material).