Despite the many missteps of 2016’s much-maligned Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie’s screwball performance as Harley Quinn received widespread acclaim. Now, once again donning her over-the-top Brooklyn accent, Robbie takes center stage in Birds of Prey (with the somewhat unwieldy subtitle of And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). The setup of the film, following a script penned by Christina Hodson, is simple enough – after breaking up with the Joker, Harley finds herself the target of every criminal she’s ever wronged, including crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, having the time of his life in the role). As Harley blunders and bluffs her way through an army of goons out for her blood, she bumps into the rest of the cast – who, of course, she teams up with by the end.
But make no mistake. Despite being marketed and titled as an ensemble film, this is very much Harley – and Robbie’s – show. In fact, Harley dominates much of the first and second acts, and the team-up doesn’t happen until the third act. Yet it’s hard to be dismayed considering how hard Robbie fought for the film, which she pitched and produced, to happen. And her passion for the project shows. Robbie is always compelling onscreen, imbuing Harley with a manic, larger-than-life energy as she bounds and bashes her way through a movie filled with hilarious visual gags and rapid-fire banter.
The only one who comes close to matching Robbie’s intensity is Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis. McGregor, best known for playing the heroic Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars movies, drops that noble façade entirely to play the unhinged crime boss and club owner at odds with Harley throughout the film. His Sionis is narcissistic and petulant with misogyny to spare, and completely unpredictable, switching from hilarious to horrific in the blink of an eye. He’s backed up by solid work from Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz, a knife-wielding creep with a penchant for cutting off people’s faces. Not that McGregor needed the help. He’s nothing short of magnetic whenever he’s onscreen, and an absolute joy to watch – until he flips the switch and does something gut-churning to remind you that he is a very bad guy.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast, while very good, is given less time to shine. Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) probably fares the best, with a relatively meaty role and a couple of satisfying fight scenes. Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) gets a decent amount of screen time as well, but she feels more like a collection of “tough cop” clichés, something that other characters call out ironically – but that just ends up making the character seem underwritten. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), on the other hand, is arguably the most underserved of the lot, which is a shame given how well Winstead balances her character’s icy confidence and hilarious social awkwardness. Finally, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), the young pickpocket that Harley befriends, provides an entertaining source of comic relief. Of note, though, is that the film’s version of Cassandra Cain resembles her comic namesake in name only – something of a missed opportunity, as the original character is a rare example of both a female Asian character with agency and a disabled character portrayed in a positive light.
On a technical level, Birds of Prey delivers in spades. Cathy Yan, a relative unknown and the first Asian woman to direct a superhero film, directs with competence and confidence, filling every scene with vivid color and stylistic flair. Birds of Prey is certainly one of the most colorful comic book movies in a while – one scene early on where Harley blasts cops with confetti bombs while pink and blue smoke swirls around her is a standout. Nor do the fight scenes disappoint, mixing violence with a healthy dose of creativity, which is unsurprising, given the fact that John Wick director Chad Stahelski was reportedly brought in to work on the film. The notable exception to this is the third act brawl, which unfortunately devolves into an unremarkable mass of people punching other people.
Birds of Prey also suffers from pacing issues in its first act. Because Harley narrates most of the film and breaks the fourth wall at times, similar to what Deadpool does in his movies, there are multiple flashback sequences as Harley remembers things she forgot to mention. Some of these work. Others do not. At one point, the film cuts from Harley surrounded by thugs to Harley storming a police station, and only later are the events that happened in between explained. Nonlinear storytelling can be effective, of course, but it feels unnecessarily confusing here. Fortunately, this becomes less of an issue as the film goes on.
One other aspect of Birds of Prey that may be disappointing for some is its reluctance to embrace its comic book source material. Parts of the film feel reminiscent of the Marvel Netflix shows, outfitting its characters in realistic (but unmemorable) adaptations of their comic book looks, and playing coy about superpowers. For instance, Black Canary, the only character in the cast with superpowers, doesn’t use those powers until near the end of the film. Certainly a case can be made for grittier takes on these fantastical characters, like with 2019’s Joker, but considering how zany the rest of Birds of Prey is, more could probably have been done.
Ultimately, Birds of Prey doesn’t reinvent the wheel. But it’s doubtful that was ever the intention. Instead, the film sought to take a simple story, introduce some new characters alongside an old fan favorite, and have a great time doing it. In that, it absolutely succeeds.