Sure, notorious Gotham City outlaw Harley Quinn is an incorrigible thief with a hardcore penchant for inflicting pain, and she might be a general sociopathic menace to law-abiding society — but she’s not a completely terrible person. In fact, in her own screw-loose fashion, Harley can be endearingly impulsive, and even downright adorable as portrayed by Margot Robbie in DC Comics’ ball-busting, bone-shattering action-comedy Birds of Prey (★★★★☆).
Robbie introduced her delightfully demented take on the sweet-tawkin’, batshit crazy Batman foe alongside Jared Leto’s annoying Joker in 2016’s critically derided Suicide Squad. Since the film’s global financial success was likely what mattered most to the studio, Robbie is reprising her breakout badass in this spinoff, officially titled Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn.
As the former Dr. Harleen Quinzel informs us in a kicky animated opening, she and the Joker are now kaput, which means that she’s no longer the untouchable moll of Gotham’s most feared crime lord. On the most wanted list of apparently half the lowlifes in town, and without the J man’s protection, hard-partying Harley is in dire need of a new squad. So, Birds of Prey assemble!
But there’s no shadowy government agency throwing this band together. Rather, Harley explores her post-Crown Prince of Crime career options, dodges her rogues’ gallery of aggrieved enemies, and naturally crosses paths with pugnacious police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), masked vigilante The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and mysterious saloon singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). The ladies all find themselves on the wrong side of crime kingpin Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregror), and thus on the same side of trying to thwart his search for an especially precious diamond and tween pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who might know the stone’s whereabouts.
Roman, an effete brat who likes to watch his bleached-blonde attack dog Victor Szasz (Chris Messina) slice people’s faces off, is played to the hilt by McGregor as a sardonic queen, more or less, and it works. From the simmering sexual tension between Roman and fellow sadist Szasz, to Roman’s appearance in a Moulin Rouge-style “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” dream sequence starring Harley Quinn, McGregor’s performance strikes an off-kilter chord of cheeriness that characterizes the whole movie. Taking on her first big-budget studio picture, director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) tease out a healthy succession of origin stories, shaken and stirred into a jazzy, non-linear chronology of flashbacks and rewinds, threaded through a funny but bloody Gotham crime story.
Robbie’s forceful turn holds it all together, though each of these Birds is allowed to be the star of her own streets of Gotham tale, all of which just happen to be narrated by Harley. Her determination, at times desperately misguided, to prove she can control her life and destiny, is surprisingly resonant amidst the funhouse frenzy of fight sequences set to a fast-moving soundtrack of rock and hip-hop.
The film climaxes with Harley swinging her bat to “Barracuda” and “Black Betty” through set-pieces that mix the Day-Glo glam of the ‘60s Batman series with crushing, roller-derby mayhem. “Nothing gets a man’s attention like violence,” Harley proclaims, and it’s a sheer pleasure to watch her beat out of her system the conflicting emotions triggered by her breakup. Her tendency towards violence might or might not regain her the attention of the one man she’s missing, but this movie doesn’t miss him as Harley finds empowerment among her fantabulous new flock.
Birds of Prey is rated R, and opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, February 7. Visit www.fandango.com.
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