What can a female supervillain do? Everything a man does, apparently, except backwards and in bedazzled roller skates.
Birds of Prey makes no exceptions for the fairer sex: Over some 110 minutes of relentless hard-candy mayhem, women are shot, punched, and stabbed; kidnapped, clotheslined and crossbowed. And if they haven’t struck first, they always strike back.
Sometimes those “bullets” come from a glitter gun, but the body count is somehow rarely lowered by the presence of Harley Quinn — the pigtailed agent of chaos played by Margot Robbie with a voice like an unmedicated Betty Boop and a dainty black heart tattooed on her cheekbone.
First introduced onscreen in 2016’s Suicide Squad, Quinn has liberated herself from that muddy, underwhelming effort and the man she was once so lethally attached to, the Joker. Without her rictus-grinned lover, though, she’s kind of a mess: drinking too much, picking bar fights, blowing up the chemical plant where their once-unbreakable union was sealed.
That’s when director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) begins to give us the general outlines of a plot, and a point of focus for its helter-skelter star: mostly something about a stolen diamond, and the secret bank codes from a slain mafia family embedded in its facets.
Currently, the gem is in the possession of a man named Roman Sionis, the estranged heir of one of Gotham City’s most powerful dynasties. Played by Ewan McGregor as a sort of petulant, peacocking dandy, Sionis is not unlike like his namesake on Succession, Keiran Culkin’s bratty trust-fund libertine Roman Roy — except this one keeps a penthouse full of homicidal artifacts and a henchman (a disquieting, bleached-blond Chris Messina) with a penchant for peeling his enemies’ faces off like peach skins.
When a light-fingered foster kid (Ella Jay Basco) accidentally-on-purpose swipes his precious cargo, she becomes Gotham’s No. 1 bounty, and a chance for Quinn, now cast out of the Joker’s protection, to buy herself some kind of freedom, or at least take the target off her back.
Yan, who colors her comic-book palette somewhere between the Crayola pop of Dick Tracy and the urban decay of Dark Knight, skips blithely from enhanced reality to full-on fantasy (most memorably, in a song-and-dance sequence with Robbie as a sort of punk-rock Marilyn Monroe). And she has a gift for kinetic fight scenes, though there are only so many creative-kill scenarios before the death toll becomes numbing.
The screenplay by Christina Hodson, thankfully, does what her script for 2018’s Bumblebee also did surprisingly well: inject the clanging mechanisms of a franchise with enough recognizable wit and human feeling to sustain all the wham-bam bits in between.
It helps too that the rest of the largely female cast fill out their antihero archetypes as well as they do: Rosie Perez as the jaded cop with a borough-size chip on her shoulder; Jurnee Smollett-Bell as a nightclub songbird whose high notes are fatal; Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the masked avenger who happily brings her crossbow to a taco stand.
It’s still mostly up to Robbie, though, to carry the story, and she does it with a giddy mix of mad-dog ruthlessness and girlish glee; a kiss blown with a brass-knuckled fist. Her Harley isn’t looking to be redeemed, but beneath all the red-lipped nihilism, she doesn’t want to be alone, either — even if her closest companions are the Taiwanese takeout guy down the street and a pet hyena named Bruce.
Does the movie’s pop-feminist message need to be as consistently, cartoonishly violent as it is? Almost definitely not. But in a world gone mad, the catharsis of Prey’s twisted sisterhood doesn’t just read as pandemonium for its own sake; it’s actually pretty damn sweet. B+