DC and Warner Bros’ villain team-up movie Suicide Squad was a bit of a disaster, telling a flat and vaguely incoherent story with an overstuffed cast of baddies, but it did at least introduce the world at large to Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. The paramour of classic Batman villain The Joker (and fan-favourite comic-book character in her own right for decades) Harley emerged as one of the only popular parts of the film, so it was no surprise when she was granted her own spin-off.
Personally, I wasn’t so enamoured with Harley in Suicide Squad – the faux-New-Yoik-sing-song voice put my teeth on edge – but Birds of Prey (subtitled ‘and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn’) gives the character new life in a fun, fast-paced and brightly-coloured romp full of bone-crunching action scenes and moments of real warmth. Oh, and there’s a hyena called Bruce, after Batman. But that’s not particularly relevant.
Robbie returns here as Quinn, newly broken up from Jared Leto’s Joker (who doesn’t appear in the film beyond briefly-glimpsed body doubles and animated flashbacks) and trying to make it on her own. Unfortunately, it turns out that it was only “Mr J’s” implicit protection that had stopped a city-full of criminals, cops and other villains from trying to take her down as revenge for years of pranks, assaults and general bad behaviour.
Her chief pursuers? Crime lord Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (an excellent, petulant Ewan McGregor), his driver Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), dogged cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and taciturn assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), all of whom also have their eye on young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) after she steals an important treasure and falls into Harley’s orbit.
It’s no spoiler to note that by the end of the film Harley, Huntress, Black Canary and Montoya have teamed up to protect Cassandra from McGregor’s face-peeling villain, but it’s not really until the final section of the film that we see this grouping in action.
Instead, at the very beginning Harley’s on the run alone, hopping through cars, up the sides of buildings and into endless fistfights with a breathless focus on keeping the story moving even after she picks up Cain and acquires a new purpose.
Along with a regular voiceover from Robbie and Suicide Squad-style captions introducing new characters (which usually note their specific grievance against Harley), the breakneck pace helps the film feel fresh and light even when the plot’s only just hanging together. You barely have time to question what’s happened or note a slightly awkward piece of plotting before you’re off to a new character, setpiece action scene or gag.
But perhaps papering over the cracks is no bad thing when the result is a film as fun and lighthearted as Birds of Prey. As much as I could nitpick at some of the plot holes and rushed character development (we don’t actually get as much time with the other female antiheroes as the marketing would suggest) none of it drags the film down a jot, and the end result is a genuine ball from start to finish.
The action scenes are satisfyingly brutal (a police evidence room brawl contains some masterful bat-ography) and imaginative, whether it’s a carnival house battle with crossbows and giant hammers or a roller derby-based car chase through the streets of Gotham. It’s also genuinely funny with jokes that are unusually character and situation-based, instead of relying solely on the pop culture-drenched quips we’re used to in most blockbuster movies these days.
Really, this is one of those films where you academically note its issues without caring all that much about them, which is about as good a demonstration of a film’s enjoyability as you can get.
Overall, Birds of Prey gets right what DC’s earlier baddie team-up got so wrong, and sets the stage well for James Gunn’s upcoming Suicide Squad reboot (which also stars Robbie). Like Harley herself, the film has done well to leave its dark past (and the Joker) behind – and already the future is looking a lot brighter.
Birds of Prey is released in UK cinemas on the 7th February