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'Birds of Prey' review: Female-led action film barely gets off the ground

(L-r) Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya, Mary Elizabeth

(L-r) Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary in "Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)" Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/Claudette Barius

PLOT Four women take on a Gotham City crime lord.

CAST Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ewan McGregor

RATED R (bloody violence)

LENGTH 1:49

BOTTOM LINE A concept in search of a story.

There's a lot to love about Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn, the Gotham City grunge rocker who got dumped by the Joker in 2016's “Suicide Squad.” With her carnival-colored pigtails, smeared mascara and nasty disposition, she's a superhero-ized version of the sexy trainwreck. Thanks to Robbie's charismatic portrayal, and a pro-active pitch meeting with Warner Bros., the character is now starring in her own movie, “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.”

The ostentatious title promises a sense of female liberation, of wings spread and rules broken. Instead, the movie follows the conventions of the superhero-action genre so slavishly that it never manages to soar. Indeed, “Birds of Prey” barely ever gets off the ground.

That's too bad, partly because there's so much pressure on female-led movies to perform (this one is directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson) and partly because the concept has so much potential. Who doesn't want to see the noirish Gotham City from a woman's point of view? Harley stumbles through its dive bars, barfing into her purse and nursing her hangover with greasy food; Black Canary (a tough Jurnee Smollet-Bell) sings for her supper at an elegant but sinister nightclub; there's even a grizzled cop, Detective Montoya, played by the always-welcome Rosie Perez. Meanwhile, a killer with a crossbow, nicknamed Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is on the loose.

It all sounds like fun, but none of the ideas gel and few of the performances pop. Cass (Ella Jay Basco), a young pickpocket who unwittingly steals a priceless diamond (she's the girl our heroines will rally around) isn't so much a scrappy street urchin as a sullen lump. Ewan McGregor flounders badly as Roman Sionis, a mundane crime lord who drops a lot of expletives, while Northport native Chris Messina is wasted as Victor Zsasz, a razor-happy henchman with a sub-simian intelligence.

Occasioally, “Birds of Prey” threatens to do something interesting or daring, only to chicken out. Black Canary watches Harley, drunk and high, being groped in an alley by some dude — and for a moment this superhero movie seems poised to address the issue of sexual assault. Instead of a “Thelma and Louse”-style catharsis, though, we get just another cartoonish fight scene. When the film does decide to cross a line, as when Harley's amorality gets the better of her, it's in the wrong direction.

Robbie deserves credit for making the character of Harley Quinn her own, having the business acumen to launch a potential franchise and using her Hollywood clout to staff this movie with a largely female cast and crew. That's a major accomplishment. It's too bad that everything interesting about “Birds of Prey” happened off-screen instead of on it.

FOUR MORE

Is there anything Margot Robbie can't do? In less than a decade, she's gone from starlet to Oscar-nominated Hollywood powerhouse. (She's currently up for supporting actress in "Bombshell.") Here are four of her past stepping-stones:

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) Robbie's breakout role came as the objectified wife of the stock-trading criminal Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio).


THE BIG SHORT (2015) Just two years later, Robbie was famous enough to spoof her own image in this comedy-drama about the financial crisis of 2008.

I, TONYA (2017) Craig Gillespie's scrappy feature about the disgraced Olympic skater Tonya Harding (Robbie) appeared out of nowhere late in 2017. Within weeks, Robbie had her first Oscar nomination, for best actress.


MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS (2018) The film wasn't a hit, but many critics noted Robbie's strong performance as a physically scarred and mentally distressed Queen Elizabeth I.

— RAFER GUZMAN

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