The complete title of the movie was the un-marquee-able “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).” (It has since been shortened to “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey”). It is supposedly the eighth movie in the current series based on DC Comics superheroes. And it is the sequel to the fairly amusing “Suicide Squad.”
Of course, what’s amusing about both movies is the character originated by Aussie Margot Robbie. She’s one of the most talented people in all of film. In fact, she’s so good that Ewan McGregor, himself a noteworthy creative type, tries to give his villain character the same sort of spin Robbie has ready for her Harley.
And that works all right. Probably Black Mask wasn’t as strong a character as Harley in the first place. But Robbie’s manic take on teen girlishness is so overpowering that the movie just about doesn’t exist when she isn’t on screen.
Director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson have been provided with a fair amount of money to make this latest “Tough Woman” movie into a hit. They had some ideas for settings and complications, though their developments are too often nothing more than mediocre fight scenes.
But the good news is that they have let Robbie be Harley.
This is the character who was a psychiatrist at a prison where she met and fell in love with The Joker. And not the Joker as played by Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker.” He won the Academy Award on Sunday for that job. But his is not as scary a take on the character as the one Jared Leto played in “Suicide Squad” (not to be mistaken for “The Suicide Squad,” a sequel announced but not yet filmed).
Quinn helped “Mr. J” escape, joined him in a weird crime spree and took a dunking in a vat of acid at a chemical plant she destroys in this movie’s first reel. In “Birds of Prey,” it is understood that the two have “broken up.”
This leaves her vulnerable in the underworld of Gotham City. She is without a protector. And what’s worse, the sometimes paranoiac nightclub owner Black Mask puts a half-million-dollar bounty on her after she fails to return to him with a somehow encrypted diamond.
Now forget the encryption. The movie does. The diamond is stolen and swallowed by orphan pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a girl Harley springs from jail and befriends.
Sniffing around the outside of the action are a cop so cliche the movie remarks on it, Rene Montoya (flash from the past Rosie Perez); a crossbow-wielding motorcycle rider, Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead); and the singer from the nightclub, Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell).
They join Harley and Cassandra in the funhouse of a deserted amusement park and find themselves surrounded by bounty hunters after that half mill. Will they be able to save Cassie until the laxatives work? Will they save themselves?
Actually, that’s about it. But there are some details added to give the story some bulk. Harley walks into the Gotham City jail seeking Cassandra. She has a canister-launching gun that knocks slow-moving uniformed jailers right and left but doesn’t kill them.
She and the girl are followed by revenge seekers. Inside the evidence lockup (which is in the same building with the jail), Harley hides behind a pallet stacked with plastic containers of cocaine. When someone shoots one of the containers, Harley inhales and gets the boost she needs to get herself and the girl out of immediate danger.
Black Canary, who has the lamest superhero name in recent memory, can sing tones that break glass and act as force fields. Leather-wearing Huntress is the only surviving member of an organized crime family. When her people was killed (for the money in accounts one can only get into with the code on the diamond), she is taken to Sicily where she is trained to kill.
Do those details help? Maybe not much.
But then what one goes to see in “Birds of Prey” is Robbie’s madcap maniac character. And our anti-heroine is just as magnetic in this black comedy as she was in “Suicide Squad.”