As Disney, Marvel and DC-character-driven films proved a long time ago, supervillains are always more interesting than superheroes. It’s not too far a leap to further declare that female villains are more auspicious on screen, more complex and simply more fun to watch too. In the Batman films alone Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman and Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy both nearly stole the show from the caped crusader. Likewise, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was like a ray of lethal Technicolor sunshine in the otherwise abysmal baddie mess Suicide Squad. Well, the wacky punkette is back and she’s set on proving she don’t need no Joker to cause havoc. She’s OK with a squad though, and she ultimately gets a girl-powered one in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
Director Cathy Yan and producer Robbie have brought something fresh, and uniquely feminist to DC’s cinematic universe, creating a chaotic yet zesty comics-style spectacle that’s exactly the killer escape at the movies it intends to be. Yes, it’s like a fight-filled, extended music video in some ways, but it works. Yan knows exactly when and where to linger, light and frame the action, and she has a beguiling focal point to play with in Robbie, whose always been able to transcend her physical beauty in her role choices (her turn as Sharon Tate in Tarantino’s One Upon A Time in Hollywood notwithstanding). She does so here with an effervescent take on Quinn that’s as lovable as it is unstable, and its complemented by makeup (she even makes face tats seem cute), hair (the famed ponytails are snipped short) and Hot Topic merchandise-ready clothes styling.
Brandishing an accent that’s not unlike her unforgettable trophy wife from Queens in Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, Robbie (who some might forget is Australian) plays Harley as a wise-cracking cartoon. A vibrant animated intro sequence provides the origin story for those who don’t already know it: She’s a former psychiatrist who fell for her psychopath patient, the Joker, and gleefully joined him in illicit hi-jinx throughout Gotham City. Prey begins with Harley post-breakup and sees her blowing up a giant chemical refinery as she seeks both a combustible kind of closure for herself and emancipation from her ex in the eyes of the public. Hasn’t every gal wanted that at some point in her romantic life?
Danger and violence ensues soon afterward, though. Without the Joker’s protection, Harley has a host of unseemly types who want to kill her. There’s the guy whose legs she broke for one (We get to see that happen, and ouch!), another whose face she had tattooed as a clown (he ties into the storyline later), and many, many others. Harley shares what she did to each throughout the film and comic book graphics on screen help her out, providing some of the biggest laughs.
In many ways this movie is a comedy first, and there’s some hilarious moments courtesy of a couple characters, including Rosie Perez as a cop, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the crossbow killer, aka Huntress, and especially from Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis, a.k.a. Black Mask, a flamboyant club owner/art fart who likes to slice off his enemy’s faces, and is bent on becoming Gotham’s most powerful scoundrel. Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Roman’s nightclub singer/driver Black Canary and Ella Jay Basco as juvenile pick-pocket Cassandra Cain play it straight, rounding out the charismatic cast.
Screenwriter Christina Hodson’s script is smart and sassy with a fourth wall-breaking, storyteller narrative structure that’s like Deadpool but simpler and less satiric. It earns its R rating for violence and language. The soundtrack is pretty killer, with badass babe anthems such as Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You” and Heart’s “Barracuda” providing on-the-nose but perfect nonetheless pounce to the brutal yet bodacious proceedings.
When Cain steals a diamond belonging to Sionis, Harley agrees to get it for him to save her own skin, but she soon develops a kinship with the kid, and later, the rest of the women in the movie. Ultimately, they all join forces and become friends (sort of). A quick hair tie exchange between Quinn and Canary during a fight scene has been getting media attention for its sweetness and realism, but don’t worry, things don’t go too soft here. Robbie never lets us forget that Harley’s a bad girl, a batshit bad girl and by the film’s end we love her for it. She may not be as dark or layered as her ex, “Mr. J,” but she’s a lot easier to root for.