By: Kevin Jordan
Don’t oversell it.
Watching a DC Extended Universe (DCEU) movie is a bit like Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s football. Every time you line up the kick, she promises that, this time, she won’t pull it away. By now, you have slipped four discs in your spine, bruised your tailbone, dislocated a hip, and eaten as much grass as a goat. But, you are going to try again, remembering that one time the DCEU was a little slow to yank the Wonder Woman ball away and you grazed it. You think “one of these days, she is going to keep her promise and that kick is going to feel sweet.” Well, either Lucy fell asleep on the job or that day is upon us because Birds of Prey finally fulfilled that promise.
(Side note: the subtitle of Birds of Prey is The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. To continue with my tortured Peanuts gang analogy, that subtitle was DCEU thinking really hard about seeing you land on your ass again. Also, mild SPOILERS ahead.)
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I am a bit of a perfectionist. When I point out problems with movies and people accuse me of nit-picking, my immediate response is “Hello…movie critic.” Picking apart movies is literally the job. What one might see as a good movie whose flaws should be ignored, I see as a solid first draft that needs to be polished in order to be great. Birds of Prey definitely needs some Pledge.
I will start off by saying that Birds of Prey is a very fun, very entertaining movie. Considering the DCEU’s track record, Birds of Prey seems like a priceless work of art following the tornado of toe jam that is the entire DCEU minus Wonder Woman. Incidentally, Wonder Woman was also no better than a solid first draft, but I digress. The film captures the insanity of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) through its structure, bouncing between past and present with Harley narrating everything for us. It is manic and discombobulated, but somehow manages not to cross the line into obnoxious. The fight scenes are well-choreographed and the movie incorporates some well-timed and funny comedic relief. The characters are fun and engaging and not once do we see Jared Leto’s Joker appear on screen. If this is the limit of your interest in deconstructing a movie, great. Thank you for reading and please thank the ushers on your way out.
But look past the surface for a moment and you will start to see that the flaws in this film are much more than just nits. Every character has writing issues. Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is missing a backstory and gets a superpower with barely any development (she shatters a glass while singing, which is not even remotely an indication that she has super-scream powers, not to mention no other glasses broke in the room). Huntress, a.k.a. the cross-bow killer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is a stone-cold assassin until the movie tries to make her an awkward nerd. Plus, she seems to be completely unaware of the mythical diamond belonging to her own family, instead, focused solely on revenge for her family’s murder. Roman Sionis, a.k.a. Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), only wears his mask at the very end of the film, for no reason other than to remind the viewer that he has an alias (which is completely pointless since everyone knows who Black Mask is and we never see him do anything as Black Mask until the climax). The hyena is never used other than as a sight gag. Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is an aged, maybe-alcoholic that suddenly is able to kick ass with the best of them despite barely any development of said ass-kicking skills beyond a drunken fight with Harley. Harley can kick the hell out of dozens of toughs, but struggles with the drunk-detective (to be fair, this is typical of action movies).
In addition to the character issues, the production and screenplay have a couple of problems. While most of the fight scenes are executed well, the climactic fight scene is over-choreographed, forcing everyone to fight in a room full of over-the-top obstacles, not to mention the editing is disorienting, frequently jumping back and forth between multiple fights. Then, after dispatching the first round of bad guys, why do all of them just walk out of the building as a group when they know a bunch more bad guys, including Black Mask are waiting for them, leading to the least surprising shooting in the history of film? At one point, they stage a person-whipping-motorcycle sequence (based on roller derby) which causes the motorcycle to crash for no reason. Maybe the most egregious flaw is how the R-rating is mostly wasted, as there is almost no blood-spatter, zero nudity, but plenty of f-bombs. Birds of Prey clearly wants to be DC-Deadpool, but manages to come off as if it has never seen Deadpool. Somehow, this movie manages to not do enough, while also doing way too much.
Conversely, it does a bunch of smaller things well. The movie is aware of itself with some fourth-wall breaks (again invoking Deadpool), it stops one scene to have a character ask when Harley had time to put on roller skates during a fight, another scene shows Huntress practicing her “do you know how I am?” line in the mirror, and most importantly, the majority of the action scenes treat the women as characters instead of women. Plus, the actors are clearly having fun, especially McGregor, who seems like he has been waiting to play a super villain since Jar Jar Binks crossed his path.
If you have made this far, you can see how a movie appears to me. Maybe I am too critical sometimes, but you try forgivingc flaws after watching and writing about seventy-five movies a year. Like I said, I am a bit of a perfectionist and I am not willing to settle for merely okay or good when a movie can clearly be improved upon. That does not mean I still don’t enjoy the hell out of movies because I really did enjoy the hell out of Birds of Prey. It just means I am not going to gush over movies that only look awesome because the other movies standing around them smell like my son’s feet after two hours of basketball.
Rating: Ask for a dollar back or at least a spit-shine.