Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the pigtailed villain/heroine of Cathy Yan’s comic-book movie “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” is that rare pleasure: a bad seed who’s thoroughly happy about it. Unlike her ex-boyfriend Joker (we learn their history in a brief, colorful prologue; he’s not in the movie), Harley seems unencumbered by darkness; she’s just cheerfully amoral. Wearing a feral, dark-lipsticked smile and a “Rotten” tattoo on her cheek, she gleefully sets men’s beards on fire; robs grocery stores (“Paying is for dummies”); coos at her pet hyena (to whom she once fed an enemy); and fights like a warrior/gymnast, even pausing mid-kick to offer a hair tie to a compatriot in need.
And “Birds of Prey” itself is also a rare pleasure: It’s a dark, violent comic-book movie that’s uneven, but nonetheless a lot of fun. (Don’t underestimate the violence; this isn’t one for kids, unless you want them to have nightmares about villains who cut people’s faces off.) Director Yan, working from Christina Hodson’s screenplay based on characters created by DC Comics (Harley was last seen on screen in “Suicide Squad”), fills the screen with color, action and sly wit. Sometimes too many ideas collide into each other — a zippy back-and-forth structure in the screenplay gets abandoned, and the pacing in the final act feels off — but “Birds of Prey” is never boring and often great fun.
Much of that fun comes from the supporting cast: Rosie Perez as Gotham City police detective Renee Montoya, who was “raised on ’80s cop shows”; Mary Elizabeth Winstead as vengeful assassin Huntress, who (hilariously) needs to work on her delivery of “Do you know who I am?”; Jurnee Smollett-Bell as high-kicking and high-note-hitting songstress/fighting machine Black Canary; an unrecognizable Chris Messina as evil henchman Victor Zsasz; and a preening Ewan McGregor as the story’s true villain, bloodthirsty mobster Black Mask.
And while I wished Robbie’s performance might have had a teensy bit more abandon — her Harley is perpetually putting on a show, but felt perhaps too controlled — she carries the movie with careless aplomb. In one scene, Harley strolls down a Gotham street wearing a jacket with elaborately fringed sleeves, made of countless skinny ribbons (including some made, appropriately, of caution tape) that create a gloriously winglike effect. Off she prances; a bright bird who doesn’t much care if you like her, as long as you’re looking.
★★★ “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” with Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor, Ella Jay Basco. Directed by Cathy Yan, from a screenplay by Christina Hodson, based on characters from DC Comics. 109 minutes. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material. Opens Feb. 7 at multiple theaters.