Women have a lot to be angry about: harassment, pay inequality, bad boyfriends—and that list is barely a black-glitter-nail-polish scratch on the surface of our grievances. Birds of Prey, directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson, strives to offer some catharsis: This is the story of what Gotham City bad gal Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) does after her bitter breakup with the love of her twisted life, the Joker. Her initial tactics for soothing her broken heart include partying and drinking to excess (she takes a break to puke into someone’s little going-out handbag, probably not her own), attempting to satisfy her deep craving for the perfect egg sandwich (made just-so by a short-order cook with thick armpit hair) and blowing up the chemical plant where, some years before, she and Joker met-cute. There’s no Joker at all in Birds of Prey, not even in flashback. That guy is gone, baby, gone, and Harley is better off without him, as is the movie.
But your enjoyment of Birds of Prey—and the degree of pleasure you get out of its blunt and bitter gags—will still depend on your tolerance for movies like Birds of Prey’s predecessor, David Ayer’s 2016 Suicide Squad. This movie, like that one, is a hyper-cartoony joy ride shot in hard-candy colors and edited into choppy, Gummy Bear-sized bits, loaded with acrid humor that’s delivered with a lot of knowing winks at the audience. In other words, Birds of Prey isn’t necessarily better than Suicide Squad just because it’s mostly about women and was written and directed by women. Its faux-riot-grrl moxie still leaves a metallic aftertaste. But it’s all leavened, at least, by a few fun supporting performances. And it introduces one character who, unlike the others, doesn’t work hard to be cool—because working hard to be cool is, as everyone knows, the exact opposite of cool.
Robbie’s Harley Quinn is the star of the show, and with her broad, shellacked grin and perky-aggressive line delivery, she never lets you forget it. Harley used to be a brainy psychologist, until the Joker led her down a nutso path of crime. Now she’s just plain self-centered and nasty, and though she relentlessly complains about how the world has let her down, you can see why no one wants to be around her. Her loyalties, to the degree that she has any, shift with the wind. She’s a lone wolfette in spangly clothes.
Then a spoiled, entitled rich guy who slices women’s faces off for fun starts making trouble: Roman Sionis (a marvelous, snickering Ewan McGregor) is after a giant diamond, previously in the possession of a family that was brutally gunned down by a Mobster. He’ll do anything to get it, and when it’s almost in his clutches, it’s expertly lifted by an ace pickpocket who just happens to be a deadpan teenage girl, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco, in one of the movie’s most effortlessly likable performances). Roman is an old acquaintance of Harley’s—it’s hinted that they’ve had a fling—and he forces her to help him recoup the stone. Meanwhile, cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a pro who’s caught tons of baddies but who always sees credit for those deeds go to her male co-workers, is also after Harley. And Roman’s driver, Dinah Lance, AKA Black Canary (Jurnee-Smollett-Bell), tries to protect Cassandra, who has no idea what kind of trouble she’s in. Here and there a mysterious raven-haired figure leaps onto the scene, dispatching bad guys with a crossbow. Every time she shows up, you want more of her, and the movie makes you wait until nearly the end to get it.
Eventually, sisterhood will prove powerful—but it takes a while. For most of Birds of Prey, these women are largely fighting against one another rather than working together. But men are always the enemy. In an early scene, a goon who barks misogynist epithets at Harley gets jabbed in the thighs with the stiletto boots she’s wearing. Take that, jerk! The guys in Birds of Prey are always using terms like “bitch” and “slut,” ostensibly to ratchet up the pleasure we’ll feel in seeing them get their asses kicked. The formula ought to work, but it still feels like a hollow victory. I just kept wishing the movie could be wittier as it goes about its vengeful business, and that Robbie—a supremely gifted performer—had something more to do than strut through every scene with that evil, dazed smile plastered on her kooky, tattooed face.
But what about that groovy minx with the crossbow? What’s her story? Her given name is Helena Bertinelli, and she has good reason to want to wreak revenge on nasty dudes. We first come to know her as the crossbow-wielding, motorbike-riding, take-no-prisoners Huntress, and she’s played, wonderfully, by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Huntress has the driest line delivery of all these women; she’s always just a little behind the beat, like a jazz chanteuse with zero Fs to give. She’s the best thing about Birds of Prey, and the movie feels somehow smarter and more subversive whenever she’s onscreen. The rest of the time, it’s stomping around on its figurative stilettos, spelling out its girl power message in loud and clear Morse code.