Given the way that Margo Robbie’s nastily whimsical Harley Quinn was the lone standout in 2016’s Suicide Squad, it’s a bit of a disappointment to see her in a more conventional film – but only a little bit; Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is still one of the better DC movies of the last decade.
What you need to know: Because BoP is a more conventional film than expected, Harley’s moments of whimsical insanity may be more effective.
Basically, BoP finds Harley (Marot Robbie) failing to think things through – after she and Mr. J break up it becomes clear that there are a lot of folks out there with ‘grievances’ with her… including wannabe crime kingpin Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) aka Black Mask.
The grievances range from breaking Sionis’ driver’s legs (he was being a misogynist a$$h0le) to killing another man’s twin brother. Each is detailed with an onscreen chyron.
Turns out there are others on Sionis’ hitlist, including Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Helena ‘Huntress’ Bertinelli (daughter the top Gotham mafia guy – whose family was killed by an underling attempting to move up in the world), Rosie Perez’s tough police detective Renee Montoya (who is trying to build a case against him), Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Dinah ‘Black Canary’ Lance (who has a connection to Montoya), and Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain (kid pickpocket who accidentally picks the pocket of the wrong guy).
The item that Cassandra lifts connects her to both Bertinelli and Sionis – and comes with the disturbing possibility that she might literally be gutted for it.
Naturally, the four – after the usual comics trope of characters not liking each other – have to come together to keep Sionis’ small army of thugs from killing them.
Thanks to Robbie’s performance, Harley is still the battiest woman in Gotham – watching her recover from the big breakup on the roller derby track is a delight – in fact all of the movie’s action sequences are a delight (and the best examples of how action can delineate character).
Perez’s Montoya talks like a detective from an ‘80s buddy cop movie – and her grievance with her captain (and former partner) feels of a piece with that.
Winstead’s Huntress is the least developed of the Birds, but her one major thing is anger issues (diagnosed by Harley, who was, after all, a psychiatrist before she fell for her Puddin’).
Smollett-Bell’s Dinah Lance is a singer in one of Sionis’ clubs – though her fighting skills (in a dust up that saves Harley’s butt) impresses Sionis enough that he has her replace his former driver. (She also has a ‘gift’ that’s referenced early and, like a gun seen in the first act of a movie, comes into play at a key moment in the third).
Although a pretty conventional tale, BoP is filled with little touches that keep it from becoming too normal – like the way Harley tends to diagnose everyone (‘tis she who calls Huntress on her anger issues, for example) – and the way Harley is just naturally not the most reliable narrator of her own story. Plus, she has a pet hyena named Bruce…
The setting for the finale is another cool touch: Founder’s Pier is lined by statues – some resembling DC Comics villains like The Fiddler and The Penguin.
McGregor makes a great, sleazy bad guy. His thing is having his lieutenant, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) cut the faces of his victim’s – while they’re still alive! He also has a thing for masks…
Cathy Yan directs Christina Hodson’s script with verve and a frenetic pace with the result that overall, Birds of Prey is a more than satisfactory introduction to the characters who become the title trio – while Harley starts her own, separate business with an unlikely new partner.
If you’re one of those people who sit through the closing credits, there’s a teensy reward – a voiceover stinger that’s pretty funny.
Final Grade: B+