Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is something rare and special – a comic book movie with a genuine perspective. Sure, it has all the action, humor, and special effects audiences have come to expect from Marvel or DC pictures. Behind all that, though, is a substantive tale of women fighting to step out of the shadows of male lovers, colleagues, and employers. The movie makes Joker, with its “Isn't society horrible to the angry white male?” nonsense, look like child's play, both as entertainment and as social commentary.
Margot Robbie plays Harley Quinn, the character she so vividly brought to life in Suicide Squad. Harley has just broken up with boyfriend the Joker and wants to let all of Gotham know she's on her own now. She accomplishes this by blowing up a chemical plant. There are two consequences to her action: she no longer has the “protection” from thugs that being the Joker's lover brought, and she draws the attention of police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a cop whose male partner took the lion's share of credit for a big bust she essentially made.
Birds of Prey has a whole plot involving an uncommonly valuable diamond, how Harley ends up (sort of) in possession of it, and how a villainous nightclub owner/crime lord named Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) works feverishly to obtain it. Going into detail about that plot is not necessary. What's important is that Harley crosses paths with two other women. Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is a singer/indentured servant in Roman's club, and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a crossbow-toting assassin looking for revenge against some bad men from her past. At various points in the film, all of them, plus Montoya, are adversaries. The story builds toward a finale in which they have no choice but to team up.
Directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson (Bumblebee), Birds of Prey has a good time delivering its female empowerment message. Instead of being overly political about it, the movie uses humor and action to get the point across. These characters are sick and tired of rotten guys running roughshod over them, so they decide to fight back. Harley, in particular, wants to establish her own identity outside of the Joker, to show that she can be just as criminally unhinged as he can. Taking a cheeky approach to the theme allows the film to be fun and relevant, without veering into didactic territory.
Once again, Margot Robbie does outstanding work as Harley Quinn. She fundamentally gets this character. The actress performs with great energy, tossing off one-liners and perfectly conveying a devilish sense of mischief. Watching her in the role is endlessly entertaining. Smollett-Bell and Winstead are terrific, too. Both bring a great mixture of toughness and vulnerability to the women they play, just as Robbie does.
As a film, Birds of Prey is intentionally chaotic. Harley provides an often-sarcastic voiceover narration. The story rewinds itself at times so that it doesn't unfold in a linear manner. Graphics, words, and little scribbles are drawn all over the screen at various points to highlight something or offer a joke. The style works because it's controlled chaos. Yan knows exactly what's she's doing, and her confidence is evident in every single shot.
The picture is also colorful, super-exciting, and full of dazzling visuals. Action scenes hit the sweet spot of being creative, yet not so overblown that they lack a sense of logic. In one, Harley uses a beanbag gun where every discharge brings something new (glitter explosions, plumes of colored smoke, etc.). An amusement park funhouse makes an awesome setting for one extended action sequence, while a chase with Harley on roller skates is stunningly achieved. A hip soundtrack accentuates these scenes.
Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn points to an intriguing future for comic book movies. It has big thoughts and ideas – ones it expresses through irreverence rather than through self-seriousness. The method works well. Here are 109 of the most unabashedly enjoyable minutes you'll have at the movies this year.
out of four
Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.