Harley Quinn is back and she’s ready to move on from the ultimate toxic relationship. DC’s latest comic flick, “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is weird, wild, and so much fun.
Margot Robbie reprises the role she first brought to screen in “Suicide Squad” back in 2016. Now, Harley and the Joker have broken up and she copes with it in all the usual, healthy ways. A new hair cut, some new clothes, a night out with friends, blowing up a chemical plant, pondering a career change, adopting a pet. She wants to move on, but with the breakup comes the end of the protection afforded her as the Joker’s girl. Alone and in the crosshairs of every bad guy in town, she finds herself making a deal with Gotham City’s biggest, richest villain: Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) aka Black Mask.
In the years since Robbie last fired a glitter gun, she has scored two Academy Award nominations and set her sights on plenty of dramatic work. It’s great to see her return to a character she clearly loves, this time receiving the attention and detail she deserves. There are plenty of great characters and badass women in “Birds of Prey,” but this is truly Harley Quinn’s movie and Robbie revels in it.
Running afoul of Roman Sionis is bad news for Harley, though, and she soon finds herself chasing after a teenage pickpocket named Cassie (Ella Jay Basco). Everyone in town is after the girl, including all of Roman’s gangs of baddies, plus Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), the mysterious Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Det. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). The chemistry between these six ladies is magnetic. We get to know each of them just enough to root for them, without having to know every detail of their lives. Perez is in the middle of a major comeback, Winstead’s star keeps getting brighter, and if you don’t already know Smollett-Bell, she’s about to be everywhere. Basco, too, is a big contender for breakthrough performers in 2020.
Ewan McGregor makes a delightfully, wickedly vile Roman Sionis. His petulant whining is the very personification of toxic masculinity and McGregor embraces it with a glint in his eye. It would have been nice to see a little bit more of him as the Black Mask, but why hide that menacing grin? McGregor’s Roman is evil and misogynistic and the actor who usually plays the hero is every bit as fun to watch as a supervillain.
Christina Hodson wrote a script that is funny and thrilling, with plenty of winks to the audience that feel right, not forced. She knows how to tell a female story and gives us reasons to care about these women, makes us want to root for them when they’re apart, but especially when they’re together.
With only one previous feature behind her, director Cathy Yan brings a desperately needed new perspective to “Birds of Prey.” The film is violent, brutal, unrelenting. And yet it is colorful and bright, a celebration of girl power. It is silly and irreverent, but gets at the heart of women working together. Where so many other films would pit these ladies against each other for being on different sides, Yan and Hodson give us a real look at how women think and cooperate. It is glorious.
“Birds of Prey” isn’t a perfect film, but very few are. It could do with a bit more development of some of its central characters, particularly Black Canary who has an actual superpower that gets very little attention. If this is a setup to give her a film of her own, we will readily welcome it. Likewise, the main plot feels a bit like we’ve seen it before and could have done with some more originality. But that is easily forgiven in the fact that we haven’t seen it done quite like this, and never with such an impressive collection of fierce ladies. Familiarity is permissible when it’s doing something so subversive.
Where “Wonder Woman” uses strength to tell a story of love and peace, “Birds of Prey” goes in quite the opposite direction. We are so lucky to live in a world where both exist.