Review: 'Birds of Prey' starts at crazy, goes down from there

Margot Robbie stars as comic book hellraiser Harley Quinn in chaotic thrill ride that never finds its footing

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The thing about Harley Quinn is she's crazy, you got that?

Whether she's blowing up a chemical waste plant just because she feels like it or feeding licorice out of her own mouth to the pet hyena she keeps in her bathtub (absolutely nuts!), she plays by her own rules, and you're just going to have to deal with it. 

Margot Robbie in "Birds of Prey."

That's the message that "Birds of Prey" hammers, and hammers, and hammers home so many times that by the 20-minute mark it becomes a dull, plodding thud in the front of your brain. OK, we get it, she's a wild one. But is that all she is?  

Apparently so, and "Birds of Prey" — full title: "Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)" — wants to be as unpredictable and zany as its heroine. The problem is that unless handled correctly, crazy is rather unruly, and unruly is no way to build a world. 

"Birds of Prey" plucks Margot Robbie's spirited Harley Quinn from 2016's "Suicide Squad," a thoroughly bad comic book misfire in which Harley stood out as the only character with moxie.

She was paired opposite Jared Leto's Joker, a surface-level take on the iconic "Batman" villain that was either destroyed in the editing room or doomed from the start. Either way, sandwiched between Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix's incarnations of the character, Leto's quickly faded from memory. 

Fittingly, Leto is absent here, discarded like a used napkin, and the proudly R-rated "Birds of Prey" is centered around Harley shedding herself of "Mistah J," as she refers to him in her bubbly, Long Island, 1920s gangster moll's accent. Harley is looking to find herself and redefine who she is outside of her relationship, like "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," but with face tattoos.

Except her relationship with the Joker was the only thing keeping her safe in Gotham, and now that she's flying solo, her foes are out to collect old debts. All Harley wants to do is eat a gooey bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich and she's got goons coming for her head from every which direction. Can't a girl catch a break?

Margot Robbie in "Birds of Prey."

She can't and viewers can't either from the madcap dullness of "Birds of Prey," which is reminiscent of 1995's "Tank Girl," another throw-everything-at-the-screen-and-see-what-sticks comic blunder.

Directed by Cathy Yan from a screenplay by Christina Hodson ("Bumblebee"), "Birds of Prey" unfolds with a scrambled narrative where the pieces are all out of order, like a puzzle that was dropped on the floor and reassembled haphazardly. The storytelling wants to be as unconventional as Harley, but the fractured way it unfolds makes a tale that is already difficult to connect with even more off-putting.

There's no grounding here, and not that a comic book movie needs to exist in reality, but there should be an effort to establish some sort of baseline of truth or connection with the audience.

Fight scenes — and there's no shortage of them — are all about the moves themselves and not who's delivering them, so they fail to register. Harley kicks, punches and spin-kicks her opponents, who never pose much threat to her despite their size and weight advantages. Why is she the most unstoppable fighter in Gotham? She just is. Stop asking questions.

Margot Robbie in "Birds of Prey."

Swirling around Harley's world are a cop (Rosie Perez), a pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco), a vigilante (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a crossbow-toting assassin hellbent on revenge (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Ewan McGregor plays a sleazy, self-obsessed crime lord who's like a glammed-up Sam Rockwell; Chris Messina, cosplaying as Pat Smear, plays his henchman. 

Harley makes friends and foes out of these associates as "Birds of Prey" introduces them, stops, rewinds and reintroduces them, like someone at a party who's trying to tell a story but keeps remembering new pieces of information and starting over. Here's the thing: none of it matters. "Birds of Prey" is all over the place, and confuses its own chaos with attitude. Sure, pause everything and go into a Marilyn Monroe fantasy sequence, Harley's c-r-a-z-y, remember? Why wouldn't "Birds of Prey" follow suit?  

It all makes for a draining ride, as even Robbie's spunky take on her character is lost amid all the eye-popping production design masquerading as story and character development. "Birds of Prey" wants to fly high, powered by its own wild child, rule-breaking spirit. The truth is it never gets off the ground. 

'Birds of Prey' 


Rated R: for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material

Running time: 109 minutes