She’s just an ordinary girl who loves her breakfast sandwich.
Sure, she also loves money, the ability to do whatever she wants without recourse or retribution and her pet hyena, Bruce.
But Harley Quinn – at least as seen through the lens of Margot Robbie’s gobsmackingly fun portrayal – isn’t simply a bad guy. She’s misunderstood.
An inevitability following the breakout success of Robbie’s Quinn in 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” this year’s first comic book film takes her supporting character and places her right in the middle of the action with “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.”
Director Cathy Yan’s sophomore feature follows the classic Batman villainess immediately after her breakup with The Joker, which puts a target on her back from both cops and robbers alike. The quest for a diamond holding bank account numbers serves as a MacGuffin to keep the action going as audiences bounce around Gotham City with Quinn and the titular Birds of Prey.
As comic book movies go, “Birds of Prey” isn’t aiming to be weighty material and the below-par screenplay from writer Christina Hodson cripples major sections of the film’s narrative structure and cohesion.
But the driving force that makes Yan’s film successful is Robbie’s relentless energy and charm as Quinn, taking everything audiences loved about her quirky turn in “Suicide Squad” and ramping it up to 11 for a frantic, maniacal performance that pushes a middling story forward.
Robbie’s Quinn maintains a free-spirited attitude that is a breath of fresh air every time her slightly twisted smile, multicolored pigtails and overly dramatic eyes pop up on screen. The Australian actress pulls viewers in and gets them to root for an unlikely anti-hero with disarming comic timing and quick-witted flashes of sanity from Quinn’s previous life as a psychologist.
Other characters in “Birds of Prey” become more interesting not for what those actors are bringing to the film, but rather how Robbie is able to bounce off of them as audiences are endeared to whatever Quinn’s going to do next.
When “Birds of Prey” turns away from Robbie’s radiantly maniacal turn, Yan’s film begins to veer off the rails as viewers are shown the larger narrative from the perspective of new, thinly written characters that only work about half the time.
Character actress Rosie Perez makes the most of her meatiest role in years as marginalized detective Renee Montoya, taking Montoya’s one defining trait in the film – a hardheadedness developed from watching too much 1980s cop dramas – and making it work for the character as something that gets the intended laughs, but also provides a worthy foil for Robbie.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead – either by choice or by lack of character development – infuses her performance as the crossbow-wielding assassin Huntress with a monotone, almost vapid lack of personality that occasionally makes for a well-timed joke, but equally feels unnecessary and bland in comparison to the bright characters around her.
There’s a strange implied homoerotic bond between the film’s two primary male characters – both major villains – in Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask and Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz that goes far enough to define both characters as sociopaths who share a romanticism for violence but not far enough that it does anything to make either character compelling or interesting.
What stands out most aside from Quinn is the brilliantly shot and designed fight choreography that puts the viewer in the middle of the action in a way that feels fresh and quintessentially part of the main character.
Each fight takes on a different life based on the setting while maintaining a free-flowing consistency that combines humor and authentically plausible action for a comic book film. Robbie and the stunt coordinators take great care to vary up Quinn’s move set from battle to battle based on the weapons she’s wielding and the fluid use of martial arts is on par with the “John Wick” films.
Films made from DC Comics have largely taken a backseat to the Marvel Cinematic Universe ever since the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy of Batman films, but it seems that Warner Brothers has begun to figure out a successful format with brighter, lighter films like “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman” and now “Birds of Prey.”
If the trend continues while the studio also backs more artistic, prestige-driven adaptations like the Oscar-nominated “Joker,” it’s possible that the DC universe of films could surpass Marvel in the next several years if Disney fails to connect with audiences in a post- “Avengers” world.
Although “Birds of Prey” suffers from an identity issue that can’t decide if Robbie’s Quinn can carry an entire film on her own, the fantabulous highs far outweigh the middling lows and make this comic book lark a film worth seeing amid a disappointing February slate at the box office