“Birds of Prey” never truly soars

TMN film critic Gordon McPherson gives “Birds of Prey” three out of five egg sandwiches.

As the next plunge into R-rated superhero films, “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” contains two memorable performances and some hilariously brutal action sequences, but never reaches its full subversive potential.

When Harley Quinn — played by a note perfect Margot Robbie — breaks up with her abusive boo, the Joker, Quinn’s life gets turned upside-down. Without the security provided by the murderous clown, Quinn must fend for herself against local criminals, roller derby competitors and the Gotham City Police Force. After some convenient and irreverent plot devices, Roman Sionis A.K.A Black Mask — played by a gleefully sadistic Ewan McGregor — plants a target on teenaged pickpocket Cassandra Cain, played by Ella Jay Basco. Unsurprisingly, Quinn gets involved. Chaos ensues and empowered women take down the patriarchy one nut punch at a time.

While the film is unfortunately flawed and lacking in several departments, “Birds of Prey” is unabashedly entertaining from start to finish. Cynical humor, bucketloads of gore and over the top choreography are at the forefront, led by a darkly lovable protagonist.

“Birds of Prey” also joins the ranks of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “Thor: Ragnarok” as a film that nails the comic book aesthetic. Vibrant colors burst off the screen, enhanced by the film’s surprisingly vivid cinematography and pop punk soundtrack. Some sequences — like Quinn’s police station assault and a bizarre musical number — feel downright hallucinatory.

The vicious, nonstop fight scenes also complement the proceedings well, featuring several gasp-inducing kills that will satiate the appetite of any bloodthirsty Truman State University student.

With the help of “John Wick” director Chad Stahelski, shaky cam and extreme closeups are eschewed in favor of providing clarity and precision to nearly every encounter.  

Without a doubt, however, “Birds of Prey” is carried by Robbie’s magnificently committed performance as the titular antihero. With tattoos, creative weapons, ultraviolent combat skills, fourth wall breaks and self aware one-liners galore, Robbie relishes her every scene, and director Cathy Yan knows that she’s the film’s main strength.

In fact, Robbie is so devoted to the role that the rest of “Birds of Prey” pales in comparison to her performance, particularly in the storytelling department.

Quinn’s pervasive narration — while enjoyable at first — eventually proves tiresome. Sure, I understand the novelty of having Quinn narrate the proceedings. Yes, I understand that she’s supposed to be crazy, easily distracted and idiosyncratic. No, none of that is conducive to emotionally fulfilling storytelling.

The other Birds of Prey — played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollet-Bell and Rosie Perez — have intriguing backstories which are relegated to rushed exposition dumps by Quinn herself. 

Without organically experiencing these characters’ stories and spending any meaningful time with them, “Birds of Prey” undermines their potential and its own feminist leanings.

This extends to the film’s antagonist, Black Mask. McGregor is absolutely, scarily bonkers in every scene, but the film never gives his character any real depth. This renders him an antagonist who, without McGregor, would have been forgettable.

This lack of nuance across the board makes “Birds of Prey” much less clever and intelligent than it thinks it is.

Having a female-led superhero film is always welcome, but without character development and thematic nuance, “Birds of Prey” becomes sadly traditional by its explosive conclusion.

Therefore, the film never quite leaves the nest of genre conventions, despite Robbie’s undeniable brilliance.