Since largely binning off the extended-universe gambit for more distinct, offbeat standalones, DC Comics has been getting its groove back on the big screen. Post-Justice League, we’ve had Aquaman, Shazam!, and Joker all doing their own unique and enjoyable thing, unconstrained by any requirement to fit into a broader world. Birds Of Prey continues to prove that DC is at its best when it cuts loose.
While this picks up with Harley Quinn after 2016’s Suicide Squad, you wouldn’t exactly call it a sequel; it’s tonally very different and doesn’t carry over any characters besides Harley herself. In fact, the film it most resembles is Deadpool, with its R-rated antihero, fourth-wall demolishing, and irreverent tone that takes its cues from the (sub)title character.
As Ryan Reynolds did on that film, star Margot Robbie also produces, and her affection for the character is clear. Robbie is once again a chaotic delight as the psychiatrist-turned-punky-crime-queen formerly known as Harleen Quinzel, and has shepherded a film worthy of Harley’s eccentric sensibilities to the screen.
Harley was the undisputed breakout of Suicide Squad, and both star and character delight in having her uncaged and flying free in her natural habitat. There’s no need to have seen David Ayer’s villain team-up movie in order to follow Birds of Prey: there’s an animated prologue that’ll bring you up to speed as it sets the zany mood. Harley’s "Puddin'", the Joker – AKA Mistah J – is dispensed with off-screen, as the dissolution of their relationship emancipates Harley to go it alone.
The problem is, after a grand gesture makes their uncoupling explosively official, Harley no longer has the protection that comes with being on the arm of Gotham’s most dangerous gangster. And so out of the woodwork come a multitude of crims looking to reclaim their pound of flesh… which puts Harley on a collision course with the women who will end up forming her new gang.
While this is very much The Harley Show, the others get a fair shake. Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a badass, crossbow-wielding assassin on a personal vengeance mission; Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is a club singer with a chip on her shoulder; beleaguered detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) fights crime and prejudice at Gotham PD; and light-fingered Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) pilfers a sparkly MacGuffin that kickstarts the plot. While these women can mostly be classed as antiheroes, in the true villains' corner are Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his sadistic henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina).
That’s a lot of lively colourful, characters to juggle, but director Cathy Yan keeps the plates spinning very effectively, ensuring everyone gets satisfying beats. Taking a leaf from Harley’s fractured psyche, the narrative hops all over the place, but it works. It helps that it’s a pretty streamlined story: the fate of the world’s not at stake and there are barely any superpowers to speak of. Being self-contained works to Birds Of Prey’s advantage. It’s darkly violent in places, a comic-book movie that targets an adult audience but doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is a film in which the lead has a pet hyena. Yes, it’s a lot of fun.
Anyone who wasn’t overkeen on Harley in Suicide Squad would be advised to stay well away. But if you like the idea of riding shotgun with Robbie’s manic-pixie-nightmare-girl, this film delivers. Popping like a candy-coloured firework, Birds Of Prey is a blast. The satisfyingly crunchy action scenes are well staged and retain a Quinn-esque quality; one shootout sees Harley discharging a glitter cannon in a police station and getting a power-up from a Class A drug, while a climactic sequence goes down in a funhouse.
The dynamic between the leads also works well. They’re a charismatic and convincingly tough bunch (Smollett-Bell, in particular, makes a bruising impression) essaying warm chemistry and a nice line in self-deprecating humour. McGregor enjoys himself with Sionis’ vanity and excesses, but he never feels like a hugely credible threat (maybe because he’s constantly referred to as the second-scariest villain in town, after the Joker, whose absence is somewhat conspicuous), and his character’s resolution borders on anticlimactic. More frightening is Messina, whose bottle-blond Zsasz is an unhinged creation (for one thing, he keeps counts of his kills via self-scarring).
But this is a film in which you’ll mostly want to spend time with the leading ladies anyway. With a pace that rattles along like a roller derby, a successful gag rate, and general tone of irreverence throughout – a filthily delicious-looking sandwich is integral to Harley’s plot arc – it’s relentless, hyperactive, and viciously entertaining. Just like Harley herself.
For more on Birds of Prey, listen to the Total Film team discuss the movie on the latest episode of the podcast.