A hyper-sexualized sidekick with a Brooklyn accent straight out of the silent era, psychiatrist-turned-murder clown Harley Quinn has always been a fan favorite in the DC Comics universe, inspiring legions of cosplayers and more than a few black and red tattoos. But this writer never understood what was so appealing about her—until Birds Of Prey, that is. Adorned with the extravagant full title Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn), the film removes Harley (Margot Robbie) from her previous context as “Joker’s girl” and puts her at the center of the narrative, fleshing out the character into someone who’s still very exaggerated but way more relatable. This Harley seems like she’d be fun to do shots and engage in petty vandalism with, while the old Harley would have just talked about her boyfriend the whole time.
That says a lot about who Birds Of Prey is for. This is a girls’ night out movie, not a grim Zack Snyder bro-down. The approach can be traced back to Robbie, an actress who’s been very aware of when and how she allows herself to be sexualized throughout her career. Robbie was the breakout star of Suicide Squad, and she knew it. So she parlayed that particular trip down leering-butt-shot lane into a producer role on this film, exerting heavy influence over the hiring of the film’s director, a relative newcomer named Cathy Yan. But while Birds Of Prey favors bulletproof vests over push-up bras, Harley’s sassy, impulsive, playful, and, yes, sexy essence remains intact. The film (which was also written by a woman, Bumblebee’s Christina Hodson) demonstrates its feminist bona fides without making a huge deal out of it, treating solidarity among women as a given and adding knowing flourishes like an already famous hair tie moment to its surprisingly gory action scenes.
Following a blessedly brief animated sequence catching the audience up on Harley’s ludicrous backstory, the film opens with a montage of Robbie in the throes of self-pity after Harley and “Mr. J” call it quits. As newly single people often do, she adopts a pet (a hyena she immediately sics on the creepy guy who sold it to her), eats spray cheese out of the can while wearing an animal onesie and crying, joins a roller derby team to keep herself busy, and gets way too drunk at the club. She even gives herself bangs, a classic post-breakup coping mechanism. Narrated by Robbie in Harley’s nasal squawk and accented with colorful hand-drawn titles that flash across the screen, this effervescent intro sets the tone for the remainder of the film, which mostly makes up in flashy style for what it lacks in forward momentum.
The plot is as scattered as Harley’s brain, jumping around in time and space from present-day Gotham to Sicily in the ’80s as Yan weaves together a disparate ensemble of women on the verge. These include Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a Gotham City detective who’s continually undervalued by her colleagues; Dinah Lance, a.k.a. Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a nightclub singer with a hidden talent for crime fighting; Helena Bertinelli, a.k.a. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a mob princess turned hardened assassin; and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), the teenage pickpocket at the center of a citywide manhunt. Cassandra is the first to collide with Harley Quinn after the latter makes a deal with a flamboyant crime boss named Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), offering to track the kid down in exchange for her life. (Harley has many enemies, and they’re all out to get her now that she’s no longer under Joker’s protection.) It’s not until the last third that the film lays down all of its cards, and the Birds finally assemble into a flock.
In a blaring signal that this is the new DCEU, where fun is very much allowed, Birds Of Prey is full of running gags and non sequiturs. And a lot of them work—Harley’s love affair with her favorite breakfast sandwich, for example, or a cutaway where Huntress practices her big entrance in the mirror. Winstead is the film’s secret weapon as the humorless assassin, playing nicely off of Robbie’s manic energy; in fact, there’s an easy vibe to the entire Birds ensemble once they all get together, but that does make you wish we got to see them hang out more. Dressed in velvet suits and monogrammed gloves, McGregor is also a hoot as Roman, a.k.a. Black Mask, but he never convincingly crosses over into the scary side of the “charming psychopath” equation. That’s typical of the film as a whole, which is more successful as a madcap comedy chasing Harley Quinn through the streets of Gotham than it is as a comic book adventure.
On a moment-by-moment level, the action in Birds Of Prey is compelling, drawing more from the Hong Kong style of unbroken takes designed to show off the choreography than the chaotic quick cuts of most American blockbusters. The fights come courtesy of John Wick director Chad Stahelski, who supervised the film’s action alongside his Wick fight coordinator, Jonathan Eusebio. Yan also takes advantage of the film’s R rating with grisly scenes of henchmen choking to death on their own blood and having their legs broken with a sickening crack among all the gleeful profanity. The upbeat approach to violence lends Birds Of Prey something of an amoral edge, adding a demented twist to Harley’s cheerful quips about pizza and tacos. (“You’re so cool,” she gushes to Huntress at one point, watching the revenge-minded mercenary stab a man in the throat.) Unfortunately, once these moments are strung together into full scenes, the overall impact is less than the sum of its parts.
There’s an odd, airless void at the center of the kaleidoscope that is Birds Of Prey. Perhaps it’s the inconsistent way the realistic bloodshed is mixed with cartoon touches like Harley’s rampage through a police station, taking out cops with confetti bombs. Or perhaps it’s the sensory overload of the art direction, which opts for colorful, chaotic locales like outdoor markets even when it’s not dealing in campy sets straight out of a Joel Schumacher Batman movie. (The costume design is similarly dazzling, and a highlight of the film.) More likely it’s the aggressive soundtrack cues, which are mixed in more organically here than in Suicide Squad but are still painfully on the nose. There’s also the fact that the film takes a while to really get going, dulling the impact of the thrills when they do arrive. But now that the DCEU’s gritty, self-serious approach to superhero cinema has long since passed into self-parody, an irreverent roller-coaster ride is exactly what the studio needed—even if it’s a bumpy one.