Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn – featuring Margot Robbie’s glorious return to the role of supervillainess Harley Quinn – is no more and no less than what it purports to be: a colourful thrill-ride of knowing excess.
It’s got quite a simple story: after a nasty breakup from her boyfriend, the Joker, Harley runs afoul of nightclub owner Roman Sionis (Ewan MacGregor). In order to pacify the mob and save her own skin, Quinn volunteers to retrieve of a priceless diamond with untold secrets, getting mixed up in the conflicting misadventures of a few more superheroines along the way. However, what makes this film special is how it’s presented. Watching Birds of Prey is genuinely like being told a story by someone as wacky as Quinn herself. The whole film is a sugar rush.
For a start, Gotham has never looked so colourful. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is beautiful to behold. You may notice that the colours get decidedly more vibrant whenever Robbie appears – a subtle touch, but one that really helps Harley Quinn stand out without the subtle pastels that surround the rest of the cast.
Meanwhile, Harley’s unreliable narration constantly skips back and forth as she goes off on tangents and picks up on ones she didn’t have time for (or even forgot about) earlier. It’s for this reason that Birds might be the only film where an intrusive voice-over actually adds something to the film as a whole – this is Quinn’s story, in Quinn’s voice. It’s an immersive, almost Brechtian structure that walks the tight-rope between engaging and unintelligible with respectable grace. This hyperactivity makes its way into almost every aspect of the film, from the Betty-Boop -esque opening sequence, to the break-neck editing and omnicoloured ultraviolence.
And of course, Robbie as Quinn is the perfect tour-guide: her second turn is as magnetic as it is chaotic, one of those rare performances where its main selling point is just how much fun it is to watch. Her eyes pop with manic energy, whether she’s breaking the fourth wall or some goon’s legs. Her skills as a gymnast in those solo fight scenes are the highlight of the movie, though some credit must go to director Cathy Yan and fight coordinator Jon Valera.
The problem is it’s just such a shame that nothing else in the movie quite reaches the heights of Robbie. The supporting cast are far from weak – MacGregor is a treat, as always – but the characters themselves are paper thin. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is criminally underutilised as Huntress, and fan-favourite villains Black Mask (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), while more entertaining than their comic-book counterparts, don’t get as much chance to shine as they maybe should. With the exception of laser-focused cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), the characters’ motivations are often vague and, at worst, downright nonsensical.
None of this becomes too much of problem until the end of the second act, where things start to feel a little contrived. It occurs to you just how much time has been spent constantly jumping back and forward in earlier sequences, once the film begins to hurry you through the motions in a bid to make up for the uneven pace. When Black Canary reveals she has the power of supersonic singing during the climax, it feels like we missed a few of the beats that could have seeded this a little better throughout.
That said, Birds of Prey knows what it is – a colourful low-stakes crime caper, and a more than satisfactory apology for Suicide Squad. This is all a day-in-the-life film about Gotham’s criminal underbelly needs to be. No caped crusaders, existential angst or sky-beams; just a few unscrupulous gangsters in a cat-and-mouse hunt for a sparkly diamond, with plenty of guns, car-chases, and glorious baseball bats to the kneecaps thrown in.
Brimming with bright colours, irreverent humour and stunning fight-scenes, Birds of Prey is a fun watch. It might even be a little bit better than you expect it to be (but not by much).
Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn arrives on 4K, Blu-ray and DVD from June 15, and is available on Digital from April 27.