So the big news in “Birds of Prey: (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn )” is that Harley ( Margot Robbie ) broke up with the Joker. Good riddance to bad rubbish. And good riddance to the worse rubbish of her appearance with him more than three years ago in “Suicide Squad.” That famously dreary production, based on characters from DC Comics, was a misfortune for all concerned—but especially for Ms. Robbie, since her fans were anticipating a full-scale breakthrough role.
A lot has changed since then, and not only in her soaring career. The DC series ditched the grim tone that turned “Suicide Squad” into a torture chamber for audiences—a reboot is currently under way—and turned Harley into a flamboyantly brutal criminal, rather than an entertaining one. She’s flamboyant again in “Birds of Prey,” but joyously so. Much of this R-rated movie is chaotic, yet it’s a richly hued, madly inventive, gleefully violent and happily slapdash contraption with a formidable female at its center.
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Women rule in every sense, though not without struggle. At first Harley is glad to be rid of her depraved guy—so much so that she does what any woman in her situation might do, blowing up the gigantic chemical plant where her entanglement with the Joker began. Soon reality sets in, though never far enough to spoil what’s essentially a surreal carnival based on a script that seems to have been spewed out by an insufficiently learned machine-learning program. (The writer, Christina Hodson, may have had too many ideas to organize, but they do sustain the hurtling action and yield pleasure along the way. The director, and the first woman of Asian descent to direct a big-budget Hollywood superhero movie, was Cathy Yan. ) Harley is alone in a brutal world, a faux-tragic figure stripped of the Joker’s protection and forced to eke out a living as a waitress. “Some people just aren’t born to stand on their own,” one customer says to another.
It’s a good joke that gets better as Harley’s standing improves radically. Soon she’s back in the vigilante business, taking lawlessness into her own hands while she comments on her own disjointed saga in the jaunty style made trendy by “Deadpool.” Her nemesis is a sadistic crime boss and nightclub owner, Roman Sionis (a witty performance by Ewan McGregor ). Her mission is to find a diamond Roman wants before he kills her. That means finding a precocious young pickpocket, Cassandra Cain ( Ella Jay Basco), who, having swiped the stone, swallows it. (If she hadn’t swallowed it, the movie, which runs a mere 109 minutes, would have been even shorter.)
Eventually Harley joins forces against Roman with three other birds: Renee Montoya ( Rosie Perez, oddly muted), a Gotham City detective who’s been trying to collar either or both of them; Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a superheroine and sometime singer who works for Roman; and Helena Bertinelli/Huntress ( Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a droll killer with a crossbow who hates being called the Crossbow Killer.
Thus does “Birds of Prey” become a team enterprise that will bear franchise fruit, though there’s no mistaking the team’s leader: Harley stands tallest on her own. She lacks an emotional center—what, exactly, does this lawbreaking peacekeeper want out of life now that she’s a free woman?—but she gets along nicely without one as she leaps, lunges and tumbles from one sequence to another. And not just action sequences. In a lurid dream sequence that no one in the old Hollywood could have dreamed of, Harley sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” channeling Carol Channing more than Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” She echoes the Vivian Blaine of “Guys and Dolls” with a New York accent that waxes more than it wanes. (K.K. Barrett designed the production, which makes the most of the visible spectrum. The cinematographer was the always superb Matthew Libatique. )
And thus does Ms. Robbie add another notable performance to a lengthening string of them—her sensationally funny cameo in “The Big Short,” sipping champagne in a bubble bath while explaining subprime mortgages; her dazzlingly ferocious portrayal of the figure-skating champion Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya”; and, most recently, her radiance as Sharon Tate in “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood” and her unforced humanity as Kayla, the recently hired Fox News production assistant, in “Bombshell.”
The Harley Quinn of “Suicide Squad” was a risky role from the outset, full of pitfalls that grew into chasms. “Birds of Prey” was risky too, but the risks pay off, partly because the film aims so fervently to please—what a concept!—but mainly because Ms. Robbie embraces its anarchic spirit with skill and zest. Eyes aflutter, mouth grinning, pigtails swinging, Harley could pass for a lascivious descendant of Giulietta Masina’s Gelsomina by way of Sue Lyon’s Lolita. Blissed out beyond measure by her own wonderfulness, she could be a definitively insufferable narcissist if it weren’t for Ms. Robbie’s comic energy and sly sense of fun. However lacking Harley’s inner life may be, her outer life is a spectacular hoot.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at firstname.lastname@example.org
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