On the scale of damage that a devil-doll superheroine can cause, breaking a man’s legs doesn’t sound all that extreme. Yet when Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the vengeful sister-of-mayhem in “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” breaks legs, she does it with a certain hellbent je ne sais quoi. It first happens at the nightclub owned by Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a Gotham City crime lord, where Harley, having recently broken up with the Joker, is letting loose (not that she has any particularly more restrained mode), testing out her new identity as an unhinged singleton. Roman’s driver tries to lure her into some vicious flirtation by calling her “dumb” and a “slut,” and as anyone who knows Harley knows all too well, it’s the dumb part that really stings. So she leaps from a stage, crashing down onto his outstretched legs. Bam!! That’s not just a violent counterattack, it’s a 21st-century feminist moment.
In “Birds of Prey,” Harley Quinn is a screw-loose avenger who suggests Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill” films crossed with Ryan Reynolds in “Deadpool,” with a nod to Juliette Lewis in “Natural Born Killers” delivering that opening diner ass-thrashing to the sounds of L7’s “S—list.” Harley’s rock ‘n’ roll action moves are fast, loose and out of control, whether she’s snapping limbs in between bullet-time flips or charging through a police station blasting a gun that leaves the men around her collapsed in piles of multi-colored glitter.
But Harley’s mind, too, never stops racing. A former psychiatrist who tumbled through a cracked looking glass when she fell for the Joker (one of her patients) and joined him in the underworld, she’s a glittering head case who look like a demented punk cheerleader and appears, against all odds, to be in full control of her ongoing mental breakdown. Early on, she gets closure on her fizzled relationship with the Joker by sending an oil truck speeding into a giant chemical refinery and blowing it sky high. (It beats therapy.) Harley talks like a gum-snapping Brooklyn kewpie doll out of a ’40s studio comedy, and it’s part of her possessed quality that she can size up someone’s psychological profile in a rapid-fire heartbeat, spewing the kind of analysis that people pay good money to hear. Her battiness contains rationality. Her face, as much of an emblem as the Joker’s, is a pure fusion of glee and rage, the two melted into a mask of sick fun.
The inspired spark of Margot Robbie’s performance is that she plays Harley as a party girl who is also a total freak — the ringleader of her own playground. With her platinum-blonde hair split into tinted pigtails (one pink, one blue), her pasty face bedecked with tattoos of a small black heart and the word “ROTTEN,” and that light-up-the-room-with-insanity grin, she’s a psycho siren who teeters between vengeance and valor, turning one into the other.
Harley, who made her first DC Comics appearance in 1992, was obviously the best thing about “Suicide Squad,” the ramshackle smash of a 2016 DC movie caper. So there was every reason to hope that building an entire movie around her would pay off in a big way. “Birds of Prey” is a superhero-team origin story that tracks how Harley, mostly through sheer happenstance, comes together with a collection of misfits to form a motley crew of kick-ass superheroines. As a movie, it’s thin, lively, loud, brash, diverting and forgettable. If anything, it’s a tighter film than “Suicide Squad,” but it’s been directed, by Cathy Yan (“Dead Pigs”), with the same sort of in-your-face slapdash aesthetic, ramping up the comics into cheeky overdrive. Harley outshone her hellion comrades before, and she does the same thing here — though Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as the crossbow-wielding Huntress, has a fierce, cool, sizing-you-up implacability that’s potent enough to be spinoff-ready.
“Birds of Prey” is the eighth film in the DC Extended Universe, as well as the first to be rated R, and coming after the stand-alone phenomenon of “Joker,” it’s a comic-book movie that isn’t pretending, in a single moment, to cast a spell of poetic awe. Yet it’s still a compellingly novel popcorn extravaganza. “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel” were female-superhero movies that offered the empowerment of earnest fantasy. “Birds of Prey” offers the empowerment of utter irresponsibility. The women in this movie look badder than those previous heroines did because, for the most part, they just don’t give a f—. With any luck, that should all translate into a major hit.
Harley, as Robbie plays her, lives for the moment — she’s at her most ecstatic watching her local bodega chef cook her up an egg sandwich. But after all the mischief she caused with the Joker, she’s in the crosshairs of the police, in particular Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who is played as a character out of a bad ’80s cop movie (that’s literally the film’s joke about her). Then Roman, a.k.a. the supervillain Black Mask, puts the screws on Harley by giving her until midnight to retrieve a large diamond from a pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who has double-crossed him by stealing it — and swallowing it. McGregor plays Roman as a pretentious art fop who, between his Botox injections, likes to slice other people’s faces off. He has an art collection of masks and shrunken heads that link up with this particular sadistic fetish, and McGregor makes him less a grand gangster than a life-size deviant slime.
The script, by Christina Hodson (“Bumblebee”), has attitude to spare, but in a rather bare-bones way. It’s going for the sparky nihilist defiance of “Deadpool,” with a running fourth-wall-breaking commentary by Harley, and there are cheeky character IDs ripping across the screen, as when Harley discovers herself under attack by the driver behind her, identified as “Some Frida Kahlo-looking a–hole” (which she indeed is). But if the film’s (black) heart is in the right acid place, “Birds of Prey” could have used more of the intricate cleverness of “Deadpool.” The actresses who come together to form Harley’s posse, like Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Roman’s nightclub chanteuse Black Canary or Ella Jay Basco as the wily Cassandra, have presence to spare, but you wish they’d been given more to do.
Directing her first studio feature, Cathy Yan keeps it all hurtling along with impeccable ferocity. Her action scenes have a deftly detonating visual spaciousness, capped by crowd-pleasing moments like the one where Harley, brandishing a baseball bat, ricochets it off the ground with perfect slo-mo timing. And Yan sprinkles just the right songs (“I Hate Myself for Loving You,” an update of Ram Jam’s 1977 version of “Black Betty,” “Barracuda”) through what feels like a music-video comic-book jamboree, one that effectively taps into timely undercurrents of feminine rage. If there’s a subversive element to “Birds of Prey,” it’s that Harley is a social deviant who was once a respectable professional woman. That she went over the edge, and lived to tell the tale, indicates how much more there is to the current moment of empowerment than the mere dream of triumphantly fitting in.