Margot Robbie is certainly having a moment. Fresh off her Oscar-nominated performance in Bombshell and a soulful turn at the heart of Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, the Australian star is back to reprise trickster anti-hero Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey, DC’s chaotic, candy-coloured companion to the twisted man angst of last year’s Joker.
The comparison is fitting, as Cathy Yan’s poppy, punchy film opens with Harley — or Harleen Quinzel, per the backstory-hopping opening animation — kicking Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime to the curb and going solo, giving shape to the newfound freedom implied in the movie’s full title, The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.
Not that we ever see the ex. Spare a thought, or not, for Jared Leto, whose infamously dedicated performance as the Jester of Genocide in Suicide Squad (2016) has become a footnote in the subsequent praise for Joaquin Phoenix.
As a character quips at one point here: “He sounds like a dick.”
After blowing her and the Joker’s beloved ACE chemical plant sky-high, Harley settles into the classic newly single routine of binge-drinking, roller-derbying and sucking Cheese Whiz direct from the can, feeling alternately empowered and sorry for herself to the stomp of — of course — Joan Jett’s I Hate Myself For Loving You. (She also takes in a pet hyena — as one does — that she affectionately names Bruce, after the alter ego of her Caped Crusader adversary.)
Harley Quinn’s pet hyena is actually a dog with CGI fur.
“She just publicly updated her relationship status,” observes veteran Gotham police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and pretty soon every goon in Gotham with a grievance — which turns out to be almost everyone — wants a piece of Harley.
Montoya, who, like Harley, first appeared in TV’s much-loved Batman: The Animated Series (1992), is trying to crack a case involving a missing mob diamond, while having her chops busted by her DA ex-girlfriend (Ali Wong), and her precinct captain, played by Steven Williams — the 21 Jump Street veteran playing off an amusing running gag about Montoya’s obsession with 80s cop clichés.
The diamond is coveted by Gotham godfather Roman Sionis (aka Batman’s brutal mob enemy, Black Mask), who’s played by an outsized Ewan McGregor — clearly camping it up as a petulant man-child who gets chauffeured around in a Rolls, sports a series of slimy Miami Vice suits, an erratic accent, and a love for peeling his enemies’ faces clean off.
Also on the scent are Sionis’ fiery nightclub singer-turned-driver Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), whose origins go back to DC’s 60s comics, and the self-styled, crossbow-wielding Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), with a backstory drawing on her 80s comic roots as a mob daughter out for vengeance in the wake of her family’s massacre.
When the jewel literally falls into the hands, and stomach, of teenage pickpocket (and, in some DC comic iterations, potential Batgirl) Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), Sionis gives Harley an ultimatum to find her — and the psychotic livewire and the adolescent runaway find themselves thrown together in the mayhem.
Birds of Prey is DC’s ninth comic book film since launching its extended universe back in 2013, and standalone Joker aside, it’s easily the most successful — vibrantly characterised, cartoonishly violent and sufficiently dark, but also plenty tongue-in-cheek — and not in that tiresomely smug way that can sometimes befall the Marvel films.
Between this and Joker, Warner Bros seem to be finding a groove in taking a chance on their wildcard filmmakers, and Birds of Prey offers hope, perhaps, that younger, relatively untested directors can bring flair and personality to a property.
Directing only her second feature, after the Jia Zhangke-produced Dead Pigs (2018), Chinese-American filmmaker Cathy Yan lends a sense of fringes-of-the-city community to Christina Hodson’s (Bumblebee) sisterhood-themed script, while keeping the action and performances humming along at an agreeable clip.
Birds of Prey is also strikingly shot, with Matthew Libatique’s (Black Swan, A Star is Born) smoky, colourful cinematography — especially vivid during a sequence in which Harley marches into a police station and picks off officers with her confetti cannon — giving the film an eye-popping, kaleidoscopic texture (not to mention a generous serve of good old-fashioned bisexual lighting). He and Yan even get to have fun with a musical sequence set to Megan Thee Stallion’s Diamonds, in which a concussed Harley slips into a reverie to imagine herself as Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).
And K.K. Barrett’s (Marie Antoinette, Where the Wild Things Are) production design is a standout, with a climactic duel set in a fantasy Coney Island that evokes Batman Returns-era Tim Burton, all impractical civic statues and icy expressionist shadows. (Harley’s apartment, too, with its pastel wallpaper and tutu-wearing beaver taxidermy, offers shades of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman.)
It’s here, among the always-reliable visuals of the funhouse, that the film’s girl gang — inevitably drawn together to battle the villain — make their stand against what Sionis dubs his “men of Gotham”, who assemble in tribal masks for a moment that almost serves as a parody of the riot sequence in Joker.
The ensuing girls-versus-bad-men melee works as a satisfyingly noisy outlet for the movie’s female rage, but Yan and Hodson also take time to sketch out moments of sisterhood — like a sweet hangout between Harley and Cass — that give the mayhem some form of emotional anchor.
But the star, of course, is Robbie, who galvanises the comic-book action and tonal whiplash with the force of magnetic screen presence — whether dispensing eye-rolling one-liners, savouring a hangover-battling egg sandwich, or simply lighting up otherwise routine skirmishes with her wide, megawatt grin.
Robbie has previously described transforming into Harley Quinn as an unpleasant experience.
She pivots here from baseball-bat beatings to big sister asides on the importance of stealing and not paying your income tax, to sudden bursts of wisdom dropped mid-rumble. “You know, psychologically speaking, vengeance rarely brings us the catharsis we hope for,” says Harley at one point, lest we forget that, before her life of crime, Ms Quinn was a decorated Arkham psychiatrist.
If anything, you could argue that Robbie’s performance is equal to the pained method man exertions of Phoenix — the emotional gestures are certainly harder to pull off, given the material’s limited dramatic scope and zippy pace, but Robbie makes it look easy.
And when things do pause for dramatic breath, as in scene where Harley drunkenly confesses her fears, there’s a real sting of sadness that lands amid the crackle and pop of the movie around her.
And while Birds of Prey suffers from some of the usual aesthetic decisions that afflict these kinds of pieces — the endless, lazy needle drops to goose the slow-mo action, “punk” titles splashed across every character introduction, and an insistence that terms like ‘badass motherf***ers’ somehow aren’t worn out — it’s an entertaining ride that’s hard to dislike, and one that should please fans and Warner Bros’ accountants alike.
The Joker might be the one on the Oscars podium this weekend, but Harley Quinn and her girls seem poised to have the last laugh.
Birds of Prey is in cinemas from February 6.
Birds of Prey YouTube Trailer