When last we saw Harley Quinn on the big screen in 2016, she was mired in the muck of the disastrous “Suicide Squad.”
As much as I love Margot Robbie, her shrill and forced performance as Dr. Harleen F. Quinzel/Harley Quinn was actually one of the primary reasons the relatively tame (rated PG-13), meandering and bombastic “Suicide Squad” was such a disaster.
Well. This is America, specifically Gotham — and though Gotham is a dark and frightening city, riddled with corruption and populated by villains and vigilantes, it’s also a place where a gal like Harley Quinn can pick herself up, dust herself off and get back in the race in slick, stylish, wickedly funny and R-rated fashion.
With a little help from some newfound friends.
Director Cathy Yan’s “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is a badass, bone-cracking visual feast, filled with screen-popping sets and costumes, enough hand-to-hand combat scenes to make Jason Statham seethe with envy, and a fantastic ensemble cast of veteran favorites and relative newcomers.
Robbie turns in a much richer and funnier and layered performance as Harley this time around, thanks in large part to the stiletto-sharp screenplay by Christina Hodson, which has Harley serving as the self-deprecating narrator filling us in on her back story and keeping us up to speed on her current and quite crazy adventures.
And if it’s a bit predictable some of the action sequences are set to covers and/or originals of songs such as “Black Betty,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “Barracuda,” that’s fine. It all still works.
Dressed like an outcast clown from a freaky circus and moving like a marionette on unseen strings, Harley has just been dumped by her longtime boyfriend, the Joker, aka the Clown Prince of Gotham, whom she often refers to as “Mr. J.,” which gives you an idea of who was in control of that twisted relationship.
For years, Harley has been getting away with all sorts of horrible behavior, but without the Joker’s protection, she’s fair game for every thug, gangster, crime kingpin and dirtbag she’s ever offended.
Every time a revenge-minded enemy confronts Harley, a comic book-style graphic identifies the adversary and lists his grievance. It’s one of many clever, wink-at-the-audience touches in “Birds of Prey” (I’m Not Typing That Whole Title Again), which has fun with the genre without getting too pleased with itself.
There’s really not much of a plot here. Everybody’s in pursuit of a classic MacGuffin, in this case a diamond etched with the microscopic access code to a wealthy family’s entire, zillion-dollar fortune.
That’s about it. The pursuit of that diamond is an excuse for us to meet a comic book universe of colorful characters.
On Team Villain, we have Ewan McGregor in black eyeshadow and flashy ensemble outfits, preening and pouting and spouting off as Roman Sionis, the disgraced scion of a rich and powerful family who has become a powerful and sadistic crime boss.
Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz is Roman’s loyal and psychotic henchman, who will literally slice off a captive adversary’s face at the boss’ behest.
On Team Anti-Heroes, we have Rosie Perez’ Renee Montoya, a veteran police detective who talks as if she’s in a 1980s cop movie. (When Renee “goes rogue” and is told to hand over her gun and badge, Harley’s narration reminds us it’s only when the cop has to turn in gun and badge that things really heat up.)
Then there’s Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary, who has a killer voice in more ways than one; Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain, a misfit pickpocket from a foster home who takes possession of the diamond and becomes a protégé of sorts to Harley, and most entertaining of all, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Helena/Huntress, an avenging knight of the dark who is deadly with the crossbow. (“It’s not a bow and arrow!” says Helena at one point. “I’m not 12 years old!”)
Inside jokes and Easter eggs and movie references abound. At one point, Harley sees a Wanted poster in the police station for a certain supervillain and says, “I know that guy!” She names her pet hyena Bruce, after “that hunky [Bruce] Wayne guy.” For a few brief hallucinogenic moments, Harley pays tribute to Marilyn Monroe’s most famous movie musical number. There are visual and stylistic nods to films ranging from “The Warriors” to “Kill Bill.”
Turns out once Harley was free of that ubiquitous and controlling Mr. J., she got a lot more interesting, a lot more complex, and at times she’s downright likable.
But don’t tell her that. It’s not as if she’s ready to make nice.