Margot Robbie Rescues “Birds of Prey”

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Margot Robbie Rescues “Birds of Prey”

Margot Robbie stars as Harley Quin in the women-packed “Birds of Prey.” (Courtesy of Facebook)

Margot Robbie stars as Harley Quin in the women-packed “Birds of Prey.” (Courtesy of Facebook)

Margot Robbie stars as Harley Quin in the women-packed “Birds of Prey.” (Courtesy of Facebook)

Margot Robbie stars as Harley Quin in the women-packed “Birds of Prey.” (Courtesy of Facebook)

Greg Mysogland, Staff Writer

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Nearly four years after her scene-stealing debut in “Suicide Squad,” Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn returns, along with a new, all-female, superhero team. The perfect antidote to the disturbing success of Todd Phillip’s vile “Joker,” “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” uses Harley’s separation from her abusive ex to center a solid film about female empowerment and unity. Despite some structural issues, “Birds of Prey” impresses thanks to a committed cast, especially Robbie, and some creative, hard-hitting action.

The film starts with Harley and Joker already broken up, so thankfully the viewer is spared from a return appearance by Jared Leto. Harley spends a little while wallowing in her own sadness before she makes a particularly destructive demonstration that she’s done with the Clown Prince of Crime for good.

Unfortunately, this also serves as a signal to all her criminal rivals and victims that she’s no longer under Joker’s protection, and she’s quickly overwhelmed by the multitude of people gunning for her, the most dangerous of which is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a flamboyant and temperamental crime lord also known as Black Mask.

After making a bargain with Roman to save her own skin, Harley finds herself caught up in a complicated caper through which she crosses paths with the other members of the titular DC Comics super-team, Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) and Gotham City Police Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).

It’s definitely good, but “Birds of Prey” falls short of being a great movie because of its slow pace and round about storytelling. Writer Christina Hodson, who seems set to become one of the new main architects of Warner Brothers’ DC Extended Universe, given that she’s currently penning scripts based on Batgirl and the Flash, draws considerable inspiration both from “Deadpool” and from the crime films of Quentin Tarantino, particularly “Pulp Fiction.”

Like those films, Hodson’s script jumps around in time a lot, but the non-linear structure feels more like an empty gesture of homage than a necessary storytelling tool. It actually robs the film of a lot of momentum.

The film is more plot-driven than expected, so there’s a considerable amount of groundwork to be laid as the web of relationships connecting the characters is built, but this could just as easily have been done in a straightforward, A to Z fashion.

Instead, the film will often get to a point of exhilaration or surprise before having to hit pause to explain how it did so. The labyrinthine plot also means that the heroines don’t get into the same room together until the film’s climax. Given how much fun it is when they do get to interact and fight together, this is a mistake.

The plot is too winding for its own good, but the characters and action mean “Birds of Prey” is still well worth seeing. Other than Montoya and Harley herself, the Birds bear little resemblance to their comic counterparts, but this is only really a problem in regard to Cassandra. Basco does a fine job, but this Cassandra is so radically different from the source material that one wonders why Hodson wouldn’t just create a new character.

The rest of the reinventions thankfully work much better. Smollett-Bell puts her own formidable stamp on Canary, and Winstead draws some surprising laughs by contrasting Huntress’ murderous rage with her lack of social skills. Perez is the film’s one piece of true-to-the-comic casting, replicating Montoya’s gruff attitude and gritty determination directly from the page, and McGregor is clearly having the time of his life as the tantrum-prone, delightfully diabolical Roman.

However, despite all this, it’s still Robbie’s show through and through. Her passion for the character shines, and she perfectly handles all of the difficult elements of playing Harley — from the deliberately cheesy Brooklyn accent to walking the line between gleeful and sadistic insanity with impressive grace. But there’s also a lot going on beneath all the jokes and psychotic grins.

Harley’s arc in the film is about discovering her own strength and agency, and Robbie subtly runs her through an emotional gauntlet of sadness, confusion, resilience, compassion and elation. That last one especially comes out in the film’s gloriously insane action sequences, which is where Director Cathy Yan shines.

Yan’s camera glides around the sets with a fluid motion that captures the technical difficulty of the innovative choreography, which in turn makes great use of Harley and company’s odd choices in weapons. There’s a fight scene with a baseball bat midway through that’s one of the most purely exhilarating and fun movie moments I’ve seen in months.

The first of three major superhero blockbusters to be released this year helmed by and focusing exclusively on women, “Birds of Prey” breaks new ground by viewing a familiar genre, the adrenaline-and blood-soaked, vengeance-seeking action thriller, through a female lens.

It’s an important step in cinematic representation that also manages to be solidly entertaining despite some script issues, thanks to its considerable style and the power of its leading lady.