Imagine having an ex so bad you have to kill an army of gangsters to get over it
Birds of Prey is a breakup movie. This is obvious from minute one when Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, reprising her role from Suicide Squad) explains via an animated prologue her history as a psychiatrist who fell for Batmans most notorious villain, Joker. (Twisted!) It breezes through the complicated series of events that led to their abusive relationship coming to an end. Thats how you get the subtitle, written in Harleys intentionally obnoxious voice: The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.
But Birds of Prey isnt just about Harleys breakup with Joker (who never appears outside of that prologue and a pair of extremely quick shots where hes not quite in frame). It dumps everything thats now par for the course in superhero movies: boring action mostly featuring men and computers, and stories about their stodgy tortured psyches. Its very loud and absolutely gleeful about the mess it makes. And somehow, it pulls it off.
The movie is meant to seem like a big team-up between Quinn and several other DC antiheroes, but in reality, the story centers itself squarely on Harley and the many people who want to take revenge on her now that shes no longer under Jokers protection. Chief among these grudge-bearers is Roman Black Mask Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a cartoonishly vain and possessive crime lord with eyes on expanding his corner of the Gotham City underworld. When Sionis catches up to Quinn, the two strike a deal: hell spare her life if she gets a diamond with mob secrets etched into it for him. Since he plans to kill her anyway, Sionis also hires every bounty hunter in Gotham to get the diamond as well.
Its through this treasure hunt that Birds of Prey introduces and brings together its main players: Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) is a pickpocket who stumbles across the diamond, Helena Huntress Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an assassin after the diamond for personal reasons, Dinah Black Canary Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is an employee of Sionis who turns on her boss, and Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is the cop whos piecing it all together.
Unfortunately, the cast is introduced via a nonlinear timeline that revisits the events of Harleys first week post-breakup before rewinding at key moments to explain how each new face factors into the grand plot. While its most likely meant to give the movie a fun, kinetic feel Birds of Prey would rather die than pump the brakes on anything it mostly highlights how thin the plot is outside of Harley. Every character and performance is vibrant and fun, but few feel fleshed out beyond Harley and Sionis. While everyone is great, McGregor is the only actor who comes close to Margot Robbies level of energy, gleefully throwing himself into the sleaziest performance he can possibly give. Hes a highly flammable ball of misogynist grease, and you cant wait to have someone toss a match at his pretty mug.
theres much more to like when Birds of Prey goes full Chaos Queen
The good news is that the movie abandons this choppy structure roughly halfway through, mostly in favor of unmitigated mayhem. There are things that can be grating about that the movie cannot have a punch thrown without a needle drop on an extremely on-the-nose song, and theres way too much slow-mo but theres much more to like when Birds of Prey goes full Chaos Queen.
This is a superhero movie that finally gives a shit about how its action looks and isnt interested in relying solely on computers to give fight scenes a pop of color. Just about every big fight in the movie is choreographed and staged in the most interesting way possible: pink and blue smoke fills the air, a grenade launcher fires glitter bombs, theres a car chase on roller skates, and the movies biggest brawl is a big game of keep-away on a merry-go-round. Add that with Robbies tremendous talent for physical comedy and every character having a distinct personality expressed via their fighting style, and the movies big set pieces are among the most fun in modern superhero cinema.
Theres a largesse here that, weirdly, hearkens back to Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, movies that envisioned Gotham City as a neon funhouse full of the loudest-possible architecture and even louder personalities. This is a good thing. Sure, the movie leans a little too hard into Harleys Lisa Frank but with murder schtick, but its much more preferable than the very safe and increasingly stale Marvel Cinematic Universe. Anything can happen, and Birds of Prey relishes in the havoc that implies.
That manic energy is all thats holding Birds of Prey together at times, and the fact that all of its characters seem to thrive in it makes it all the more disappointing that the movie doesnt really take any time to get to know them better. Its almost enough to derail the movie, but at a brisk hour and 47 minutes of genuinely fun spectacle, its hard to hold too much against it. Breakups are messy, but at their best, theyre also cathartic as hell.