Margot Robbie Is the Wild Better Half of Action-Heavy ‘Birds of Prey’

Birds Of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” has a fabulous title that drips with promises of pop art wildness, and for a while it delivers. It can be said right away that it’s a better experience than its predecessor, 2016’s dreary “Suicide Squad.” It has clearer aims for one thing. What hasn’t changed much is the nature of its title character, still played by Margot Robbie with a quirky madness. This time the idea seems to be that Harley is a proto-feminist icon. While swinging a bat and blasting away glitter-coated bullets, we cheer her on for finally dumping the Joker and being a free woman. It’s a wickedly fun premise and the film’s colorful zaniness makes up for its slim story. 

We’re back in Gotham City where Harley Quinn (Robbie) has indeed broken up with Mr. J following their jailbreak in “Suicide Squad.” Now on her own, it dawns on Harley that everyone she’s ever had a less than pleasant experience with is free to come after her. Among the fiends now gunning for the crazed former Arkham Asylum psychologist is gangster Roman Sionis aka The Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). After buying a hyena she names Bruce (after a certain pointy-eared local), Harley seems to find some balance until she crosses paths with three other women. They are detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who is eager to take down Sionis, Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer at Sionis’s nightclub who is also an informant for Montoya, and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a crossbow-wielding vigilante who seeks revenge for the mobsters who killed her family. They all come together because of Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a street urchin who pickpockets a diamond desperately coveted by Sionis. He wants it because it can tap him into a financial network that would put Gotham in the palm of his hand. Suddenly bad girl Harley becomes responsible for Cassandra even as her own neck is on the line.

“Birds of Prey” is the latest entry in the already confused Warner Bros. cinematic universe culled from DC Comics. The DCU has always suffered from putting visuals and action ahead of the story. Only “Aquaman” and “Wonder Woman” have successfully stuck to clear, fairly simple plots which are then combined with grandiose CGI spectacle. The talent involved in “Birds of Prey” is notable. Gritty madman David Ayer has been replaced by Cathy Yan, director of the potential cult favorite “Dead Pigs,” and screenplay duties belong to “Bumblebee” scribe Christina Hodson. Lensing the production is acclaimed cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who is best known for his work with Darren Aronofsky and for recently shooting “A Star Is Born.” Yet somehow the advertising for the movie, including a fantastic poster of Margot Robbie doing her own neo-Punk version of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” outdoes the film itself. The only visual boldness turns out to be a fun opening animation where Harley recounts her early life, including being traded for a six pack by her father and later falling in love with the Joker. The rest of “Birds of Prey” feels oddly subdued. Even Gotham City lacks character and Los Angelinos will easily recognize their own streets and bridges. It’s as if Yan’s style is imbalanced. She wants to make a whacky carnival ride while sticking to the somber, washed out aesthetic David Ayer used in “Suicide Squad.” 

Much of the success of “Birds of Prey” will be due to how dry this late winter season has been at the movies. With so many retreads or letdowns, at least Margot Robbie arrives with her likeably nutty take on Harley Quinn. Devoted comic book readers will have to accept many narrative changes, like Cassandra Cain being reduced to a bratty kid who talks back lazily after having swallowed the diamond everyone is chasing after or Quinn even being thrown into the whole Birds of Prey storyline, of which she has little connection. But Yan’s breakneck energy and quirky approach keep the movie as an entertaining slice of pop weirdness, like a grittier “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” Robbie is a producer here as well and makes sure Harley is less objectified; instead she’s a demented anti-heroine grabbing you by the arm like those looney characters Jim Carrey would constantly play in the 90’s. Her passion is for egg sandwiches and when Montoya catches up with her in a street corner we see the sandwich fly out of Harley’s hands in slow motion, splattering on the ground and breaking her heart. It’s absurd but fun. With DC infamous for taking itself way too seriously at least “Birds of Prey” tries genuine slapstick. 

There’s no Joker in “Birds of Prey,” not even a single reused clip of Jared Leto’s face from “Suicide Squad.” He’s a cartoon figure hovering over Harley like a bad ex-boyfriend she’s trying to forget. The soundtrack throws in a few classic love sick jams like Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” Men are the clear villains, from McGregor’s flamboyant Black Mask, prone to slicing off the faces of his enemies, to the corrupt commander denying Montoya a promotion. It’s refreshing to see the movie having no need for a male savior or even partner for these women. When a thug at a nightclub slut-shames Harley she quickly lands on his legs, breaking them, and unlike “The Kitchen” Yan never pretends to be making a moralistic entertainment. Harley helps Cassandra, but at heart likes living outside the law. 

Yet all of these touches are rather cosmetic. There’s not much else to say about the actual plot of “Birds of Prey.” Unlike “Suicide Squad” there are no rampaging witches and portals sucking the city into another dimension, it’s all about Black Mask wanting his diamond. Most of its 1 hour and 49 minutes will engage the masses starving for entertainment with over the top action sequences. “John Wick” director Chad Stahelski and his 87Eleven action design company reportedly came in to help structure the movie’s stunt-heavy moments and it shows. Harley twirls in slow motion, firing glitter-infused ammo while Huntress fires arrows with precision into mafia throats. If only there had been even more of the pure aesthetic pleasure of “John Wick.” Nonetheless it’s never a snoozer. 

Ever since she premiered into pop culture via the 1990’s classic “Batman: The Animated Series,” Harley Quinn has been a hit because of her twist on the usual femme fatale stereotype. She’s more anarchic than seductive. Margot Robbie takes the character and makes her bubblegum fun. “Birds of Prey” also has to be judged almost on its own since the DCU can’t seem to stay cohesive. Robbie will return in the role for James Gunn’s upcoming “Suicide Squad 2,” and this film has no connection to last year’s truly somber and serious “Joker.” Simply don’t walk into this one expecting much of an enriching narrative. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a good actress shining within a carnival entertainment. Robbie continues to find artistic emancipation, even while evoking the feeling of blowing things up as you munch on cotton candy.

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” opens Feb. 7 in theaters nationwide.