‘I thought the guy was supposed to give the girl diamonds,’ chirps Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) in Cathy Yan’s significant entry in the superhero stakes. Birds of Prey, to remove the elaborate subtitle, is a fairly rollicking spin-off from the truly awful Suicide Squad movie, and part of the interest is seeing scenes, characters and cinematic styles which didn’t work at all in David Ayer’s film revived and made to seem rather cool here. Yes, it’s a grimy, gritty Gotham city, yes, there’s a constantly low thrum of guitars and drums, and yes, there’s splattery violence; an early scene features a man in a wheelchair unable to avoid a truck. And yet the black comedy works here, largely due to a terrific lead performance by Robbie, who also produces.
Harley Quinn is done with The Joker, and has blown up the chemical refinery where the couple initially met before the opening credits roll. Quinn is keen to emancipate herself, and being the best version of herself involves avoiding the many, many malcontents who are seeking revenge on her. These include Rosie Perez as a cop with a taste of 80’s cop show dialogue (and a cool T-shirt slogan to boot), plus the excellent Mary Elizabeth Winstead as The Huntress, a hooded assailant with a crossbow, not a bow and arrow. There’s an obvious McGuffin in the form of a diamond with a hidden secret, a device which Quinn breaks the fourth wall to describe, notably a ‘compication’ when it gets swallowed by a teenage pick-pocket. The diamond in question is sought after by super-villain Black Mask aka Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, hamming it up in style), and only Quinn stands in his way.
Birds of Prey does not have, or aim for, the serious, pretentious tone of Joker; instead, it’s a punchy, frenetic romp that would be ideal for kids if it wasn’t so deliberately scuzzy; a throw-away rape scene in which Black Mask cuts a woman’s dress off at knifepoint should probably have been excised, although some of the devices used to avoid gore, including what looks like a glitter-gun, are rather ingenious. Questions of good or bad taste are irrelevant here; talking to the camera in I,Tonya style, Robbie knocks it out of the park as Quinn, alternating geek-chic with acrobatic abilities, but never losing sight of the character’s scattershot vulnerability.
For a spin-off from a truly lousy film, there’s no real reason for Birds of Prey to work so well as it does, other than, for once, sisters are clearly doing it for themselves. Women can and should be able to match men when it comes to super-heroes; Harley Quinn’s success bodes well for Black Widow, Wonder Woman and the production line of heroines heading our way in 2020. Fanboys may not approve, but Harley Quinn’s emancipation is fantabulous stuff.