4 out of 5 stars.
Comic book movies can be dicey territory, but I think it’s safe to say that most people found the 2016 ensemble film “Suicide Squad” to be an unsatisfying mess. The best part of that movie, however, was that it gave us Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn. The character, who first appeared on “Batman: The Animated Series” in 1992 and has since become a major fan favorite, is iconic Batman villain Joker’s on again/off again girlfriend, a bubbly yet sadistic woman who was a psychiatrist before her former patient seduced her, and who is rarely seen away from his side (or talking about him, or doing things for him). But as the full title of “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” suggests, this follow-up to “Suicide Squad” gives Harley the opportunity to find herself and be her own woman, away from the Joker. And you know? It’s pretty great.
Directed by Cathy Yan with a script by Christina Hodson, “Birds of Prey” is set right after Harley (again played by Robbie, who also serves as a producer on the film) leaves the Joker. At first, she’s depressed and lonely, but the film only spends the first few minutes dwelling on this. After realizing that no one takes her seriously away from Mister J, Harley goes out into the world with new confidence and a new purpose (though what exactly that purpose is outside of criminal lunatic isn’t fully established in this film; as the ever-changing business cards Harley passes around throughout the film suggest, she’s considered everything from “hit-woman” to “dog walker”). It isn’t long before Harley gets caught up in gangster Roman Sionis’ (Ewan McGregor) plot to track down a valuable diamond that has gone missing. The quest to find the jewel, which is tied to young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), has Harley’s path intersect with Dinah Lance, aka the Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer and driver for Roman; Helena Bertinelli, aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a deadly assassin armed with a crossbow and a need for vengeance; and frustrated police officer Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), whose efforts to bring in Harley are thwarted by the male officers in the precinct who never work as hard as she does.
Let’s get the not-so-great stuff out of the way first. While it’s big on girl power, the film’s story lacks depth. It is nice to see a DC movie that tells a story on a smaller scale, however; the world, not even Gotham itself, isn’t at stake. The climax comes close to devolving into the sort of big final battle that most of these movies conclude with, before ending too abruptly and easily. We also don’t get to see a lot of interaction between our female leads until the very end; perhaps there will be a sequel someday and, now that everyone knows each other, those relationships will be allowed to blossom.
Now, onto the good stuff, which is essentially the rest of the movie. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, which is head-scratching at first, but ultimately serves the film well, as it occasionally jumps back in time to explain the events that led to that particular moment, or the backstory of a certain character. Yan and her team give “Birds of Prey” a unique visual style that extends beyond the colorful costumes. Title cards inform the audience of the names of characters and the grievance they have with Harley. There are superbly editing sequences that let the audience into Harley’s head, most notably one where she, decked out in Marilyn pink, sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” while spinning around Roman and his goons. It all fits the nature of the story well, which at times is unabashedly campy, but it’s also very apparent that this movie was made by women, with women primarily in mind. Like “Wonder Woman,” it portrays strong women without pandering to scenes that are meant to get the audience excited but ultimately mean nothing—something that Marvel hasn’t mastered yet. All of the men in this film try to take advantage of the female characters in various ways, but they never overpower our heroes (know that I use that term very loosely here). And the best scenes are the ones that are just between the women that showcase that they are looking out for each other: Cassandra and Harley hanging out and discussing their desire to be successful on their own, Huntress shielding Cassandra from having to watch a fight, Dinah quickly wiping away a tear as she watches Roman humiliate another woman, or Harley passing Dinah a hair tie mid-battle.
The female characters are all dynamic, and while they have varying degrees of screen time, the film feeds us just enough information to understand their general backstory and what their personal conflict is. The performances are great across the board, with Smollett-Bell being a stand-out for me among the newcomers. There’s a power about her even when her character isn’t using her actual super powers, and while she’s tough, she cares, and she isn’t going to stand by and watch injustices happen on her watch. Also among the new members of the cast are Chris Messina as Roman’s sinister henchman Victor Zsasz and Ali Wong as district attorney assistant Ellen Yee (who I really thought was going to have a bigger role to play, but alas). Robbie is once again great as Harley, but this go around, she has the time and the opportunity to really go wild. The great thing about Robbie’s performance is that as eccentric as she makes Harley, she also allows the audience to see the moments when her emotions—particularly when she feels hurt—bubble to the surface. McGregor’s Roman Sionis doesn’t really get the chance to do anything with his villain alter ego, Black Mask, but he is funny and crazy and scary and an absolute joy to watch every time he’s on screen. It’s hard to imagine McGregor not having a great time playing this character; Hodson gives him some really entertaining bits of dialogue (this is one movie that does benefit from an R rating).
I never thought I’d say that “Suicide Squad,” arguably the worst entry so far in DC’s cinematic universe, would lead to what is the franchise’s best movie so far, outside of “Wonder Woman.” But here we are. It may not have a lot of substance, but it sure has style, and is entertaining from start to finish. “Birds of Prey” is a great example of what a good team behind and in front of the camera can do together. Harley Quinn is a free woman, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Runtime: 109 minutes. Rated R.