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Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) review – a blitz of bad taste | Film

Watching Birds of Prey, a line from the recent Fox News sexual harassment drama Bombshell occurred to me – when Kate McKinnon looks deep into Margot Robbie’s eyes over cocktails and says, wonderingly: “That’s quite some face you’ve got there.” And it is. Robbie’s capacity for pop-eyed, crazy-cyborg grinning is certainly put to work in this weirdly watchable hyperactive supervillain comedy, an ADHD-aspartame overload written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan.

It’s a spin-off from DC’s little-loved Suicide Squad, in which Robbie plays Harley Quinn, clothed in an eccentric kick-ass variant on nymphet: Lolita meets Cynthia Rothrock. She was the inamorata of Jared Leto’s Joker in that film and now returns as an antiheroine in her own right.

Harley and the Joker have broken up (he dumped her) and, in a rage-filled search for emotional closure, Harley steals a gasoline tanker and drives it into the chemical factory that was the site of their first romantic encounters – jumping clear at the last moment. The resulting explosion and its aftermath precipitate a meeting of five women from all over Gotham who operate on different sides of the law: 80s-style cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), mob heiress turned crossbow killer Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), nightclub singer and martial arts enthusiast Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Harley is to find herself in conflict with all of them but is also, in a way, in league with them prima inter pares. The quest for a mega-valuable diamond animates the jittery, fragmented narrative, which zooms around all over the place and also brings in hideous club-owner and rich criminal Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) who among his many sins is a culturally insensitive collector of African art.

Hodson’s script, with its insistent voiceover, narrative shuffling, wackily choreographed punch-ups and exotic villains introduced in surtitle freezeframe, is a cheeky borrowing from Kill Bill (with one assailant’s resemblance to Frida Kahlo incidentally coming in for some derisive commentary) and I enjoyed the influence of screenwriter Shane Black (the creator of Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) in the description of Montoya, particularly that supremely ominous moment when she is told to hand in her gun and her badge. As Harley sagely puts it: “No cop ever gets stuff done until after they’ve been suspended.” As well as the DC origins, there is also an echo of Frank Miller’s Sin City graphic novels, filmed by Robert Rodriguez.

This film is a blitz of bad taste, a cornucopia of crass, and it is weirdly diverting – more than you might expect, given the frosty way Suicide Squad was received critically – and engagingly crazy. Watching it feels cheerfully excessive and unwholesome, like smoking a cigarette and eating a chocolate bar at the same time.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is released in Australia on 6 February and in the UK and the US on 7 February.

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