Directed by Cathy Yan
Starring Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
You know the old double-standard. Men are ardent, women are emotional. Men are assertive, women are bossy. Men take no prisoners, women are cold-hearted bitches. And in a comic-book movie universe where films like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are hellbent on proving that women can do anything men can do backwards and in heels, the joy of an entertainment like—take a deep breath with me here—Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is that women can give absolutely zero f**ks and just smash s**t up for the heck of it.
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And when everybody hates you the way all of Gotham City hates Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), that’s exactly what you do. At the start of Birds of Prey, we learn that the Joker has dumped Harley, and so Harley decides to change her relationship status by driving an oil tanker into the chemical factory where the Clown Prince of Crime pushed her out of her old life as a clinical psychologist and into a vat of toxic waste. This announces to the entire city that she has lost the protection of her feared boyfriend, and now everybody is after her—including Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), the club owner and gangster whom Harley has been pissing off for years.
In a desperate bid to keep from getting murdered, Harley promises to retrieve for Roman a diamond encoded with the whereabouts of a long-lost Mafia family fortune. The problem is, the diamond was stolen from his vaguely psychotic henchman Victor Zsasz (a bleached blond Chris Messina) by a 12-year-old pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (a charming Ella Jay Basco). And Harley’s pursuit of the petty thief is at cross-purposes with a compassionate lounge singer at Roman’s club named Dinah Lance AKA Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who has a register that can shatter glass and flatten anyone with an eardrum, and the police detective she is informing for, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). Throw in a vigilante with a dark backstory named Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Ladies’ Night will never be the same again.
Harley serves as the unreliable narrator, and screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) takes her structural cues from her anti-heroine’s fragmented psyche. The screenplay revels in chaos, diving headlong into action set pieces and then backtracking to provide context, plunking flashbacks within flashbacks, and employing voiceover that borrows a page from Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black’s handbook on How to Write Hard-Boiled Crime Capers. After describing Montoya as a cop out of a bad ‘80s movie, Harley delivers some hokey ‘80s dialogue of her own: “No cop ever gets stuff done until after they’ve been suspended.”
Hodson and director Cathy Yan throw so many glitter-encrusted ideas at the screen, they threaten to obscure Yan’s grasp of the narrative. There is Harley responding to her own voiceover, there is a running joke about the grievances each pursuer has with her, and there is one patently hilarious breaking-the-fourth-wall look. That all these ideas stick is no minor miracle: With the help of Chad Stahelski (the John Wick movies) and his 87Eleven crew’s muscular fight choreography, Birds of Prey is undergirded by confident—as well as violent—action. It’s not enough for Harley to kick a guy in the shins; she has to jump on his kneecaps while his legs are propped up on a table. It’s a who-gives-a-f**k moment that is gasp-inducing because now it’s women appropriating bad behavior from a long history of movies where men have always gotten away with it.
Still, Birds of Prey wears its feminism casually. Smollett-Bell is hard-as-nails without being screechy on a blackboard with it; Perez is corded and coiled, reminding you that women in their mid-50s are still badass; and Winstead steals her scenes by undercutting her character’s tragic origins for laughs. When they get together with Robbie, who once again effortlessly balances winsome quirk with wide-eyed menace, the movie becomes so much fun, you almost want to ask Hodson and Yan why they didn’t bring the women together sooner. (Watch out for a scene where Robbie passes a hair tie to Smollett-Bell during a lull in the fighting—it’s such an offhand display of female camaraderie that only a female director could have thought of.)
Flipping a middle finger at patriarchal standards, blissfully oblivious to its place in the bigger picture of the DC Extended Universe, Birds of Prey insists that girls just want to have fun. And the more glitter-bombed and bone-crunching that fun is, the better.
Photographs from Warner Bros. Pictures