Watching Suicide Squad was one of the few times that being a film critic felt like work. It’s perhaps the worst movie I’ve watched in the past five years, with an irritating, unfunny protagonist in Harley Quinn, who I’m told is supposed to be darkly comedic. The male camera’s gaze slobbers over the breasts, tushes, and amply-exposed skin of the female antiheroes, akin to that of an unreformed sex predator on his first day out of the clink. The talents of skilled actors Margot Robbie and Jared Leto are frittered away on charmless, shallow renditions of Harley Quinn and the Joker. (Only Will Smith does anything remotely interesting or heartfelt, bringing gravitas to an assassin who just wants to raise his daughter.)
There’s some good news on hand for Birds of Prey, the sequel to Suicide Squad and further adventures of Harley Quinn. With female director Cathy Yan, the camera no longer ogles. As a semi-clever animated prologue tells us, the Joker has broken up with Harley Quinn, so Jared Leto is nowhere to be seen (thus the original longer title of this film, The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
Alas, in bringing an entirely new supporting cast of antiheroes and true baddies, Will Smith also went bye-bye, and no characters replace him to lend any emotional investment to this drama.
Even worse, despite bringing a new writer on board, Harley Quinn is still as irksome and hilarity-deficient as a toothache. What makes this nearly criminal is that Margot Robbie is an actor of real talent, as is abundantly clear in films like I, Tonya and Bombshell. But her lines here lack wit or pizzazz.
Indeed, her character is a manifestation of unforgivable sloth on the part of the filmmakers. In an outmoded caricature of a ditzy, uneducated New Yorker, she enunciates the word “perfect” as “poi-fikt.” Hell, Birds of Prey can’t even get her former career right: she repeatedly refers to herself as a psychiatrist, yet in one scene says she got her Ph.D., in another that she went to medical school. How profoundly lazy that the studio couldn’t be bothered with a basic fact check; it’s as if The Theory of Everything had referred to its protagonist as “Stephen Hawking, M.D.”
Like Robbie’s skills, those of Rosie Perez and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are similarly squandered. Perez portrays a gifted cop passed over for promotion, Winstead a mysterious figure out for vengeance, known as the Huntress. I can’t comment on the previous talents of the other two actors rounding out the quintet of women who form the Birds of Prey: Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays a nightclub singer known as the Black Canary, while Ella Jay Brasco is kid thief Cassandra Cain. Surprise, surprise, in this lusterless rock of a film, they have no opportunity to shine.
All of these women are brought together by their shared hatred for sadistic nightclub owner Roman Sionis. Played by Ewan McGregor in another thankless role, Roman has earned the sobriquet of the Black Mask, both for his choice of face wear and his practice of carving off the faces of his victims.
The only time Birds of Prey exhibits a spark of creativity is when the five women finally unite in their showdown with Roman. This action set piece is well-crafted and entertaining.
Until this point, however, the viewer must endure listless, uninteresting exposition and sophomoric stabs at funniness. There are only so many times that Harley Quinn can fire her beanbag gun into the nuts and asses of her male victims before even the kids stop laughing. And forcing Rosie Perez to wear a t-shirt that exclaims “I shaved my balls for this?” just feels demeaning.
Ultimately, Birds of Prey comes across as a failed tale of feminist empowerment. We’re reminded that, historically, a harlequin was a servant’s role. Likewise, near the film’s open, Harley repeatedly states she’s nothing out of the shadow of her boyfriend, the Joker. On a parallel tack, Rosie Perez’s cop character endures institutional sexism, personified in her former male partner who took credit for her crime-solving prowess and is now her chief.
Keeping with this theme, the movie’s soundtrack is meant to point the way forward. It starts with standards like “Diamonds (Are a Girl’s Best Friend)” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” before progressing to a cover of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”
Thus, in the climactic showdown, Roman Sionis becomes a stand-in for all oppressors in the patriarchy. But considering the visual sexism of the prior film, this pivot feels cynical, built to profit from the success of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel.
Even the ethnic make-up of the Birds of Prey – blonde Gothamite, Italian-American, black, Latina, and Asian-American – comes across as pandering and as phony as Harley’s accent. With so many sincere and artistically superior stories of empowerment available today, I’d give this dud a miss.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )