Combining all the ingredients that make comic book bros break out in hives, Birds of Prey is a candy-coloured curveball of a movie that doubles as a feminist fable and an apology for the poorly received Suicide Squad.
Once again played by Margot Robbie, Harley is having a difficult time getting over the Joker, with whom she has broken up sometime between the events of this film and Suicide Squad. But she hasn't told anyone yet — partly because she's still in denial, but more importantly, being the Joker's girlfriend afforded her a certain immunity in the seedier corners of Gotham City, immunity that Harley is convinced she'll lose the second she announces that she is no longer under Mr J's protection.
Birds of Prey is essentially the story of Harley emerging from under the Joker's shadow. Much has been written about the emotional abuse Harley has had to suffer as the Joker's partner in crime over the years — in comics, video games and cartoon shows. But by removing the Clown Prince of Crime (the Harlequin of Hate, the Jester of Genocide) entirely from the narrative, Yan and her writer, Christina Hodson avoid confronting some of the more interesting aspects of their relationship.
It's a missed opportunity, because despite never appearing in the flesh, the Joker haunts her like a particularly stubborn wart — unshakable and irritating. His face is visible on a dart board on Harley's bedroom wall and his name is mentioned by dozens of characters throughout the movie. Curiously, however, Jared Leto's likeness is never used; the Joker in Birds of Prey appears to be a campy composite of sorts.
Hodson's screenplay channels the early films of Guy Ritchie, complete with a valuable MacGuffin, snazzy visual graphics, and an overly complicated, non-linear structure. She even has Robbie serve as a relatively reliable narrator, and our guide in this densely populated world. The trio of women charged with spearheading the film — Yan, the director; Hodson, the writer; and Robbie, the producer — inject the film with a spirit of pride. It's the sort of film in which one character, sensing another's discomfort during a fight, offers her a scrunchie to keep the hair out of her eyes. In another scene, a character admires a cohort's ability to fight in tight pants.
But it takes a while for the gang to get together. For the most part, Birds of Prey is a Harley Quinn movie. And that is its biggest flaw. Because we know so little about the character — barring a hasty narration that hints at a troubled childhood, Harley's life is a mystery — it is difficult to stick with her as she goes on the run from Gotham's criminals, tracks down an elusive diamond, and tries her best to be a 'not so terrible person'.
The ethics of rooting for a villain aside, Robbie brings an inherent likability to the character, but it's Ewan McGregor who delivers the film's standout performance as the flamboyant gangster Roman Sionis (Black Mask). Yan, despite her relative inexperience — this is her first studio film, and her second feature ever — appears to have a decent grasp of tone, although most of the action sequences seem to be the handiwork of John Wick director Chad Stahelski, who was roped in at the last minute to oversee reshoots. A warehouse brawl and a climactic car chase, in particular, are trademark Stahelski — intricately choreographed and edited with patience.
Birds of Prey has virtually no bearing on the larger DCEU; it's baffling why Warner wants to insist on it even being part of the franchise at all. But as a standalone adventure, it's a terrific showcase for Robbie's talents as an actor. Her performance here is better than the one she's currently nominated at the Oscars for.