Here’s a modest prediction: I don’t think Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) will be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 2021. Its fellow Batman spinoff Joker won that distinction because it’s male and morose and self-important. Birds of Prey, on the other hand, is female and fun, and while it’s far from cinematic greatness, I’ll readily re-watch it before I see Joker again.
Picking up from the end of Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) breaks up her relationship with the unseen Joker and decides to go freelance with her own crime business in Gotham City. That’s when a young pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) filches a priceless diamond from Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a raging diva of a gay mob boss who likes it when his boyfriend (Chris Messina) peels off his enemies’ faces with a knife. The girl falls into Harley’s hands, and the newly independent crime boss has to recruit Sionis’ enemies to her side just to stay alive.
Robbie, who doubles as the film’s producer, was smart enough to pitch this spin-off rather than a straight-up sequel, and Warner Bros. was smart enough to recognize that the Australian actress was the best thing about Suicide Squad even while she was visibly half-assing her performance. Here, she is fully engaged and having a grand time delivering her lines in an unplaceable accent, wearing outlandish fashions, and contorting her features into the most clownish facial expressions possible. When she breaks a boorish drunk’s leg in a nightclub, she does it by executing an insouciant little bounce off a table and landing on top of his outstretched limb. She also recaps the plot of Suicide Squad in a way that points up the ridiculousness of the earlier film. Somehow, Robbie even wrings laughs out of stabbing someone to death, as Harley does it while all of her is sedated except for her right arm. The entire film might fall apart if not for Robbie’s insistence on injecting entertainment value into a comic-book adaptation.
She’s not the only source of fun, either. Out of this deluxe cast, Messina is cast effectively against type as a sadist with a bleached-blond buzz cut and facial scars who goes all quiet inside as he prepares to unleash on an underling who’s planning to betray Roman. Similarly, as a crossbow-hunting vigilante, Mary Elizabeth Winstead displays her comic skills while standing in her bathroom mirror and practicing delivering lines that will impress bad guys. (She fails utterly at acting tough.) First-time director Cathy Yan stops in the middle to show us the making of a heavily stuffed egg sandwich that Harley orders as a hangover cure. It is destroyed before Harley can eat it, and the sandwich’s death is treated more tragically than that of any human character.
By contrast, the hallucination sequence with Harley re-creating the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is something that could have been either performed in full or cut. The script by Christina Hodson spends much of its first half doubling back on itself, as Harley (in her function as the movie’s narrator) fills in backstory and character information that she forgot to give us. This is right as a depiction of Harley’s disordered mind, but Yan makes it tiresome when it should be funny. Elsewhere, the script misses a boatload of chances to comment on institutional sexism among the police and the criminals, as well as the particular (and very real) breed of misogyny that gay men like the villains here indulge in. As for Harley herself, a woman who holds a doctorate in psychology, wears punk fashions, and happily bashes in people’s heads is a fascinating person, yet the series still hasn’t tapped into the contradictions in her character. Like Joker, this movie suffers from being pseudo-deep.
Fortunately, it has better action sequences. Yan constantly finds creative elements to incorporate into the set pieces, like the incapacitating canisters of glitter and confetti that Harley fires at Gotham cops when she storms a police station. A climactic fight sequence has the antiheroines fighting off bad guys on a rotating dais while the camera slowly rotates in the opposite direction. Yan films many of the fights so that you can tell that the actresses (including Jurnee Smollett-Bell as a hardened lounge singer and Rosie Perez as a lesbian cop) are doing their own stunts. One bad guy is finished off in insanely cool fashion, with Harley slamming a baseball bat off a concrete floor into his face, then catching the weapon off the rebound. People still say that women can’t direct action, but the filmmakers here have done it in style. Birds of Prey embodies Harley’s nihilistic desire for thrills, gags, and egg sandwiches, and while not everyone will find it to their taste, the film is endearingly strange and carves out a unique place in the DC films. Watching it makes me feel like I’ve been hit with one of those confetti canisters. I could stand being hit again.
Starring Margot Robbie and Ewan McGregor. Directed by Cathy Yan. Written by Christina Hodson. Rated R.