On paper, Birds Of Prey And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn sounds like a really bad idea. Take the least woeful character from one of the worst films of the last decade and spin her off into her own full-length feature: I’m sure it made sense to somebody.
But if it were a bad idea on paper, on the cinema screen it’s even worse. Suicide Squad was thoroughly dreadful, a comprehensive failure of a film mitigated only by Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. But saving a rubbish film from being utterly unforgivable is a very different task from being the focus of a film, and while Robbie, and Quinn, were moderately fun as a bit of light relief to take audiences’ minds off the unbearable dreadfulness of Suicide Squad, BPATFEOOHQ takes a weak conceit and stretches it entirely too far.
The film starts with Quinn telling the camera all about how she came to be the mess she is. There’s no end of references to “Mr. J,” despite the Joker—and this is a mercy, given how dire Jared Leto’s performance was in Suicide Squad—being completely absent from this film. But anyone who needs the amount of expository dialogue about Quinn’s origins that we’re given here will likely have been fortunate enough to have dodged the cinematic dumdum bullet that was Suicide Squad, and hence won’t fully know who “Mr. J.” was. But, to be fair, the back-story exposition is one of the few enjoyable aspects of Turds Of Prey, all cartoon-flashback and splashy mixed-in animations.
But once that’s dealt with, about half an hour in, the film can’t decide what direction it wants to take. Director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson try to make a complex timeline work, with retellings and point-of-view shifts, but this is no Rashōmon. Instead, the timeline darts around just a little too erratically, the story a little too clever-clever without really making too much coherent sense.
In the same way, the tone of the film is almost utterly incoherent. What starts off as a cartoonish, very nearly fun bit of comic-book nonsense soon becomes quite graphically and nastily violent, and yet, in one particularly absurd scene inside a police station, it can’t quite commit to being as violent as it wants, and turns its violence into a circus-clown show. There’s a phenomenally ill-advised song-and-dance routine, there’s an attempt at something resembling noir, but it hangs together so terribly poorly that, an hour in, my guest for the preview screening, a huge self-professed fan of Quinn, Leto and his Joker, leant over to me and whispered “It’s really dragging, isn’t it?”
The problem lies not only with the pacing. The story is also not what you’d expect from the trailers. It’s not the ensemble film you’d imagine it to be, and it can’t decide if it wants to be a superhero film or not, and, unsure of what to be, it can’t quite manage to be anything. The characters of the various Birds are similarly oddly mis-drawn. Quinn is, obviously, at the heart of the film, a narrator of both her own story and, oddly, characters she’s not met yet, such as The Huntress, underplayed to the point of dullness by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Rosie Perez, on the other hand, massively overplays her detective character, Renee Montoya; to be fair, Quinn in voice-over does hint strongly at the “cop can only be effective once they’re suspended” clichés that BPATFEOOHQ tries to parody. Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary is a significantly lesser character than the actor deserves, as is Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain; Basco, at 13, clearly has a long and successful career ahead of her, and one day might wash away the stain of this nonsense. And a thoroughly dishonourable mention must go to Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis, the villain of the piece, chewing so much scenery it’s a wonder there was any left. Pitching his Sionis somewhere between the knowing camp of late-career Rob Lowe and the unaware camp of early Don Johnson, he clearly had much more fun making this film than I did watching it.
And of course there’s Margot Robbie herself. Robbie is, beyond question, a phenomenal acting talent. Recent roles have included Elizabeth I, Tonya Harding and Daphne Milne; she has range, she has depth, she has an intuitive gift for acting. And yet, her she is, overegging the pudding to the point of inedibility. Maybe she’s been given a role, and a direction, so shite that even she can’t salvage it; given her obvious skill as an actor, that should be an indication of what an utter festering mess this film is.
Suicide Squad was intolerably poor, in no small part due to the way that writer and director David Ayer’s camera leered over Margot Robbie, and in particular her arse. BPATFEOOHQ—that self-consciously look-how-clever title alone should be enough of a warning—should have been the chance for a female redressing of the balance, but while Yan avoids the objectification of Quinn’s body, and while Hodson has written a film that keeps the focus strongly on what she, presumably, imagines are strongly-written female characters overcoming male baddies, to really do justice to the acting skills of their cast, Robbie above all, would require a significantly better film than this.
“Who’s having a good time?” asks Sionis about half-way through Turds Of Prey. Not me, mate. Not me.