Producers: Sue Kroll, Margot Robbie and Bryan Unkeless   Director: Cathy Yan   Screenplay: Christina Hodson   Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elisabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Bosco, Ali Wong and Ewan McGregor   Distributor:  Warner Bros. Pictures

Grade:  D

There’s a pervasive air of desperation to this female-centric would-be comic-book action blockbuster, which flails about for nearly two hours trying to be edgy and snarky in “Deadpool” mode but fails miserably on all counts.

The character of Harley Quinn, the wacky, wild and definitely dangerous right-hand woman of the Joker for whom a baseball bat is the weapon of choice, first appeared in comics in the late nineties and made her inauspicious big-screen debut in David Ayer’s abominable “Suicide Squad” in 2016.  Despite being introduced in that debacle—which nonetheless became a big success at the box office—she gets a second chance, again in the person of Margot Robbie, in Cathy Yan’s cumbersomely titled picture, which is a sequel to “Squad” only in the most tenuous narrative sense (though in quality terms, it’s about on the same level).

 In addition, it’s a sort of origin movie for the titular trio of female crime-fighters that made a separate debut in a comic series, also in the late nineties.  (An unrelated WB TV “Birds of Prey” series bombed in 2002-03.)  They’re Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a veteran cop constantly dissed by her male colleagues; Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a crossbow-wielding vigilante out for revenge against the mobsters who slaughtered her family; and Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a nightclub chanteuse, aka Black Canary, who proves to have a supernatural power—a scream that can devastate people and property in the surrounding area.

These three are accidentally brought together with Quinn, who’s been dumped by Joker and is hell-bent on making it on her own, to save Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), an annoying young pickpocket from the wrath of the city’s current crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his sadistic lieutenant Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina).  Cassandra has purloined a diamond belonging to Sionis, with which he’d planned to finance his takeover of the city, and he’s anxious to get it back.  Quinn is among those trying to earn the bounty he’s put on the kid, until she changes tack and decides to save her instead.  It’s their shared defense of the irritating girl—and their common detestation of Sionis—who’s also known as Black Mask for his occasional habit of wearing one—that forces them to join forces in a big final confrontation against Roman as his army of thugs. 

The Birds, however, get relatively short shrift in the chaotic script by Christina Hodson, in which the anarchic Quinn seizes center stage from the very start, in an animated sequence in which she recounts her life.  She also dominates via continuous narration in a shrill, irritating accent and even periodic moments when the character breaks the fourth wall by addressing us directly.  Harley’s supposed to come across as endearing by reason of her sassiness and take-no-prisoners mentality, but actually she’s one of the most obnoxious characters you’re ever likely to encounter.  At one point the evil Sionis shuts up the motor-mouth by slugging her and saying, “You’re so tiresome.”  He’s so right.

Robbie nonetheless seems to relish the character’s excesses of wardrobe, diction and action, and flings herself into the part with enthusiasm; a pity her enjoyment isn’t shared by viewers.  Of the trio of Birds, Winstead comes off best simply because she underplays, and Smollett-Bell has a pleasing presence; but Perez comes off as simply tired.  (Incidentally, Quinn mentions both Joker and Batman in the course of her constant ramblings, but neither actually appears in the movie.  They’re sorely missed.) 

McGregor, looking fit and trim, preens and prances gleefully and handles the occasional bursts of the villain’s rage well enough, but Sionis isn’t a terribly interesting figure, and his homoerotic relationship with Messina’s Zsasz is treated so cautiously that it stands out as one of the few aspects of the movie that seems relatively subdued.  Basco comes across as amateurish as the kid in distress, and the heavy dose of scatological humor associated with her character merely adds to the picture’s unpleasant raunchiness. 

That’s an element of the screenplay that director Yan, working on her first major project, doesn’t quite seem to have a handle on and the same can be said of the frequent fight sequences, which are certainly busy but feel rather flaccid and clumsily staged, a problem that even the hectic editing by Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff can’t correct (the frequent employment of stunt doubles is all too obvious).  Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is so glaring that much of the picture is an eyesore, a problem accentuated by Erin Benach’s costumes, while Daniel Pemberton’s score is predictably overbearing.

In a move that’s becoming increasingly common, “Birds of Prey” deliberately pushes the envelope to secure an “R” rating from the MPAA—apparently a badge of distinction in today’s world, likely to increase ticket-buying.  Unhappily, in this case “R” doesn’t mean “restricted” so much as “rotten.”