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Movie review: Harley Quinn might just not make it after all in ‘Birds of Prey’

Ed Symkus
More Content Now
Harley (Margot Robbie) shares a snack with her pet Bruce.

The fast and flashy animated opening sequence in “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” suggests that there’s about to be a couple of hours of exuberant fun. The title character’s story is told, from childhood through professional life up to her meeting and then running with the Joker, which was a central plotline in 2016’s “Suicide Squad.”

But by the end of the animation, Harley (Margot Robbie, reprising her role) has revealed that “We broke up” (a visual suggests that he booted her out of his life), and as live footage begins, she says, “I had to find a new identity, a new me.”

She says this offscreen, narrating what’s going on - a tired practice that translates into lazy shortcuts being taken in the scriptwriting department. And it continues throughout the film. Yet in the early going here, it doesn’t really get in the way. The accompanying visuals - some of them flying at a frenetic pace and featuring quick edits as well as characters constantly on the move - are attention grabbing.

Harley’s new life without the Joker includes acquiring a pet hyena, competing in roller derby and drinking heavily. And Margot Robbie doesn’t pretend for a second that she’s at all concerned about overdoing it as an actress. She does it proudly and joyously, putting on the little girl voice, wearing the big smile, exaggerating every movement her body makes.

So, yes, she’s fun to watch (but not to listen to), and the first half of the film is fun. It’s a rare treat to see Ewan McGregor chewing up the scenery as the fancy-dressing, smooth-talking, malevolent club owner Roman Sionis, who has no qualms about ordering one of his henchmen to peel the skin off any foes who cross him. And it’s good to have him as the film’s main villain, with the goal of getting his hands on a 30-carat diamond that will allow him to “own Gotham.”

Unfortunately, this leaves us with a film featuring two bad guys. Harley is certainly no hero. In fact, it’s hard to tell exactly what she is. At film’s end, I was thinking, “What was her modus operandi? What did she want out of life? What was she trying to prove? Were her post-Joker days going to consist of making trouble just to make trouble?

That problem is exacerbated by memories of her in “Suicide Squad,” where she and her often nasty deeds were so amusing partly because of the compelling characters around her. The ones she’s saddled with here include the wholly unlikeable young pickpocket Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco), the grim, hardworking, but underappreciated detective Montoya (Rosie Perez), the shrouded-in-mystery crossbow woman Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and the slightly less mysterious nightclub singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). The script, by Christina Hodson (“Unforgettable,” “Bumblebee”), appears to be morphing into a story of female empowerment - of women working together for a cause. But that theme is played out almost as an afterthought, very late in the film, and fails to become meaningful.

But, again, the going is kind of fun for a while, at least in the first half, where there are multiple mentions of the Joker not being around to protect Harley (who doesn’t seem to need much protection), and there’s a casual mention of “The Batman,” and it’s revealed that her hyena’s name is Bruce. The action in the first half is well-handled, at least until it’s clear that director Cathy Yan is only able to mimic fight scenes that she’s watched in other films. The two major offerings in this one, though nicely displaying agility and athletic prowess, are far too long and repetitive. And they’re packed with distracting slo-mo segments. (Why haven’t these been banned in Hollywood already?)

By the time the second half of the film gets going, the fun factor has been used up, it all turns mean-spirited, the action becomes outrageous and silly, and we still don’t know what’s going on in Harley’s head. I hate to be the one to say it, but this movie, just like Harley, needs the Joker.

Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Birds of Prey”

Written by Christina Hodson; directed by Cathy Yan

With Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Rated R